Thursday, 22 September 2016

Making Prisons Safer

  Yesterday’s Ombudsman’s report on homicides in prison is yet another indictment of the state of the prison system. Although thankfully still rare, the increase in what Nigel Newcomen calls  these chilling occurrences  -from an average of 1.6 killings  per year from 2003-12 to 4.3 per year since then- is more evidence, if it were needed, that prisons are in very urgent need of attention. Yet as with the 7 day NHS, the government has looked to be promising grandiose and expansive reforms when there are scarcely resources to do the basics properly.

The government’s response to the crisis in prison safety seems to be that there are no easy solutions.  But it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is one truth that dare not speak its name: that in many prisons, there are simply not enough staff to do the job.

It’s true that staffing may still be generous compared to many countries but following cost cutting exercises, numbers are considerably lower than 2010. To quote the UN “needless to say, management of a prison becomes more difficult with lower ratios of staff to prisoners, as the risk of incident increases.’  

In England and Wales, while this is increasingly being said –by the Howard League, the Labour Party and most recently the Samaritans, the government are reluctant to agree. Last week Justice Minister Sam Gyimah told a Parliamentary debate on Prison safety that “staffing levels are not the main problem”.  Yet on the same day Glen Parva YOI's  Governor was telling an inquest that she has too few resources to protect young prisoners from the risks of bullying, suicide and self -harm.

The Government have promised a plan in the autumn, belatedly recognising that their flagship rehabilitation reforms cannot possibly take hold when staff and prisoners are unsafe. One thing it won’t  include is Lord Harris’s recommendation that specialist Custody and Rehabilitation Officers take responsibility for the overall well-being of young adults in prison- unceremoniously rejected, presumably  on cost grounds. But what should it say?

First it should commit to re-doing the benchmarking that has led to inadequate staff numbers. Just as  the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) were asked after the Mid Staffs Hospital disaster to look at safe staffing for nursing in adult inpatient wards in acute hospitals, an independent body should do so in respect of prisons. With an advisory board comprising personnel at all levels and ex prisoners, it should look seriously at how many staff are required to meet the expectations set by Prison Inspectors and the various recommendations made by them and the Ombudsman. Newcomen's latest report for example called for the careful management of prisoners known to be at risk from others and rigorous cell searching to minimise the availability of weapons. Whatever Gyimiah thinks, both need staff.  Benchmarking Two should be completed by Easter.

Second, some of the capital resources intended to build new prisons should be converted to revenue to pay for the more staff that will be undoubtedly be required. There is growing scepticism that the £1.3 billion secured from the Treasury for new prisons is capable of being spent by 2020. Some of it should be used to repair the current arrangements rather than establishing new ones .

Third, to provide a breathing space for the prison service, a range of measures should be introduced to cut numbers in prison. How about a stronger presumption that sentences of up to 2 years should be suspended? Or relaxing criteria for temporary release and cracking on with plans to pilot tagging and problem solving courts?

Only with a short term plan like this, will the prison service be in a position to approach the reform agenda promised by the last government and half-heartedly at least confirmed by the current one.   I was recently told of a Governing Governor in a local prison having to come in over the weekend to ensure that prisoners received their meals. Good for him for putting his shoulder to the wheel. Somehow,  I don’t think it’s what Governor autonomy is supposed to add up to.  

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