Jail population is 86,260 to be increased to 88,000 in March 2022
Watchdog says violent situation will not improve without better conditions
PRISONS in England and Wales are “full to bursting” and the number of inmates should be reduced, the president of the Prison Governors Association has warned. Andrea Albutt says ministers must not “worry about votes”, but cut the prison population by releasing those serving terms of less than 12 months.
The call comes as a separate report by the chief inspector of prisons highlights “degrading” cell conditions. The prison service said jails were being modernised and extra staff hired. Addressing the association’s annual conference on Tuesday, Ms Albutt said: “The government must be brave and reduce the prison population and don’t worry about votes. “Don’t dabble, just do it – because morally it is the right thing to do.”
Ms Albutt believes short sentences are “pointless” because they do not work. She suggested that those on sentences of less than a year could instead be dealt with in the community. Although the population has stabilised over the past six weeks – it was put at 86,260 last Friday – it is projected to increase to 88,000 by March 2022.
In August, Justice Secretary David Lidington said he wanted to see the prison population come down and that judges and magistrates “should have confidence in community sentences – the alternatives to prison”. But the Ministry of Justice has said the department “will tackle the challenges facing the estate head on”.
Separately, the latest report from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke has said prisoners are in “insanitary, unhygienic” conditions that threaten their health and can lead them to drugs. Evidence detailed in the report revealed how some inmates are held in cells with an unscreened toilet – forcing prisoners to make lids out of cardboard, pillowcases or food trays.
‘Explosion of violence’
The “explosion” of violence that has hit jails will continue while inmates are held in “utterly appalling” conditions, the prisons watchdog has warned. Peter Clarke said prisoners are “frustrated and angry” at being locked up for as long as 22 hours a day. He said: “The Government’s ambition for prison reform will not be achieved unless prisons are made safer, the problem of drugs is dealt with and living conditions are improved.”
There have been rises in the number of assaults, self-harm incidents and suicides in prisons in England and Wales. A number have been hit by serious disturbances. In the latest episode trouble flared at Long Lartin maximum security jail on Wednesday. Earlier this week a report on living conditions across the estate warned that inmates are turning to drugs to “break the boredom” as they are locked up in cramped and decrepit cells for up to 22 hours a day.
The assessment detailed how some cells have broken windows, poor ventilation and heating, graffiti, damp, exposed wiring or vermin infestations.
Mr Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The inevitable outcome of the conditions in jail and the crowding is that prisoners are very frustrated and angry.
“We have seen an explosion of violence in our jails over the last few years. “Until things are improved in terms of the frustrations of prisoners in their conditions and being locked up for excessively long periods of time during the day, I’m afraid I can’t see how things are going to improve.”
Govt changes plan
Government plans to shut down old and “dilapidated” prisons in England and Wales have been suspended due to a sudden rise in the jail population. Michael Spurr, head of the Prison and Probation Service, said no closures were planned in the next five years.
Mr Spurr said it had been an “incredibly difficult” summer after an unexpected surge in prisoner numbers with further rises forecast. But he said plans to provide 10,000 new prison places were still on track.
Speaking at the Prison Governors’ Association conference, near Derby, Mr Spurr said he had “never known” the jail population to increase by so much in such a short space of time as it did between May and August, when it went up by 1,200.
He said officials were “still trying to understand” the reasons but thought the unanticipated rise might have been due to a number of major court cases finishing and changes to police bail arrangements.
“It did shock us through the summer,” he acknowledged, adding that it had left prisons more stretched, delaying the process of prison reform. Although the population has stabilised over the past six weeks – it was put at 86,260 last Friday – it is projected to increase to 88,000 by March 2022. Mr Spurr said: “I anticipate that we won’t close any prisons this Parliament.”
The Conservative Party election manifesto had promised that old jails would close. It said: “We will invest over £1bn to modernise the prison estate, replacing the most dilapidated prisons and creating 10,000 modern prison places.”
Hindley young offenders institution and prison, in Wigan, and Rochester jail, in Kent – both of which had been earmarked for closure pending redevelopment – are to remain open.
The Home Office has also announced that the Verne Immigration Removal Centre, in Dorset, will be turned back into a prison next year.
The conference was also told that the number of prison suicides had fallen “significantly” this year and the recruitment of 2,500 extra prison staff would be completed ahead of schedule – “well before the end of next year”, according to Mr Spurr.