The Justice Committee recently concluded their first major inquiry on prisons planning and policies in this last parliament, focusing on measures the Ministry of Justice has used to reduce the ‘operational costs’ of the system. The inquiry report reveals the huge strain that the system is under, as well as the disastrous impact of government reforms on performance and safety:
“In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”
Overcrowding pushing system to its limits
One of the first issues the report confronts is the well-reported problem of overcrowding. The inquiry found that “a growing number and proportion of prisons are operating well over their baseline.” At the end of March 2014, the report notes, 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were classified as overcrowded; by December 2014 this had risen to 83 of the 117 prisons.
The Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling MP however seemed quite untroubled by this significant rise in the prison population. Grayling told the committee, “It means prisoners sharing a cell…if prisoners have to share a cell in order to make sure they can go to prison, this is not a great problem.” However, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said in his evidence to the committee that overcrowding is a “real problem…In some places, two men are in what is essentially a large toilet designed for one, and often in very squalid conditions.”
In his annual report into the state of prisons for 2013-14, Nick Hardwick produced a damning assessment of government policy, concluding, “it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures…was a very significant factor in the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed.”
What are the key implications of overcrowding? The inquiry found that overcrowding is starting to have “effects on the ability to maintain constructive regimes.” As well as a marked deterioration in the physical conditions in which prisoners are held, overcrowding has led to increased strain on the availability of training, rehabilitation and other activities to prisoners, which has happened at the same time as a huge fall in the number of prison staff.
The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) expressed their serious concern to the committee that the government has no plans to decrease levels of crowding, concerns which were also expressed by the Prison Governors’ Association (PGA). The inquiry report concluded that overcrowding is “a more significant issue than the way it was described to us by the Secretary of State.”
A final note of concern in the committee’s examination of overcrowding related to the building of new prisons by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS): “It deeply concerns us that as a result of a shortage of prison places in London, NOMS is building prisons fully intending to hold more prisoners in them than they have capacity for.” The National Audit Office (NAO) found that this was the case with the building of HMP Thameside. Both the PGA and Nick Hardwick characterised the issue to the committee as “institutional overcrowding”.
Efficiency savings and staff losses
The inquiry noted that in 2012 the government replaced a planned prison privatisation programme with public sector benchmarking and contracting out of ancillary services. NOMS developed a set of ‘benchmarks’, with the intention of introducing “more efficient ways of working”, including changes to prison regimes as well as to staffing levels.
Staffing represents the bulk of ongoing prison costs, with NOMS having estimated that the savings required as a result of the controversial benchmarking process would mean 5 per cent of prison staff taking voluntary redundancy in 2013/14. While the inquiry found that benchmarking was not the sole reason for staffing reductions, the prison service has seen a huge loss of staff while this government has been in power.
As a result of redundancies and increased turnover, the number of full-time equivalent staff in public sector prisons fell by 28 per cent between 31 March 2010 and 30 June 2014, a reduction of 12,530 people. The prisoner to staff ratio rose from 3.8 in September 2010 to 4.9 in September 2014. Confirming the severity of the findings of the recent independent survey of the wellbeing of prison staff for the POA, a quarter of the staff who left the prison service in the year up to 2014 had resigned.
The inquiry concluded that “NOMS ought to have foreseen that major reductions in staffing, less favourable pay and conditions of employment, and significant changes to prison regimes, would lead to a rise in people opting to leave the Prison Service.” The committee then went on to note that they “do not believe that making further detrimental changes to terms and conditions of staff is sustainable as a means of controlling costs if the prison population continues to rise.”
One further issue is the contacting out of ancillary services in prisons. We have blogged previously about the hugely delayed competition process to award contracts for the provision of prison services across public sector prisons (including maintenance and facilities). This competition involved just two bidders, both large multinationals with very little experience in the criminal justice system. The inquiry found that “there is a risk that the proliferation of partner organisations providing services to prisons could distract prison management teams from their core role.”
Declining standards and safety
But what has been the impact of staff reductions and other changes? The report concludes that all evidence, from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, from the government’s own performance data, from the independent monitoring boards and from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, “indicate a deterioration in standards of safety and performance across the prison estate over the last two years, with fewer opportunities for prisoners to undertake purposeful work or educational activities.”
Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, reported to the Justice Committee that his office received a 25 per cent increase in complaints from prisoners between 2013-14, including a 50 per cent increase in complaints about regimes. “Where, for example, statutory entitlements have been lost – access to fresh air, the library, the statutory gym – as part of a poorly implemented benchmarking process, clearly the real-life experience for prisoners on wings is suffering quite considerably, and that is percolating through to my office in terms of complaints.”
The committee observed, “the Ministry remains optimistic that the benchmarking policy will prove a safe and effective means of reducing costs, but the current difficulties in many prisons highlight the hazards of seeking to run an estate operating at 98% capacity with staffing levels which afford too little flexibility.”
The key explanatory factor in the “obvious” deterioration in standards over the last year, the inquiry found, is that a “significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes.”
Rise in assaults and suicides
Further indications of the chaos enveloping the prison system is the rise in assaults and suicides among prisoners. NOMS’ figures report a worrying increase of 10 per cent in assaults in prisons in the year to end June 2014, and a parallel rise in the number of assaults per 1,000 prisoners, the latter showing that the increase in assaults is not simply the result of there being more prisoners. Since 2012, the inquiry noted, there has been a 7 per cent rise in assaults, a 100 per cent rise in incidents of concerted indiscipline, a 9 per cent rise in self-harm among prisoners, as well as a 38 per cent rise in self-inflicted deaths.
Very worryingly, the Justice Committee conclude that the government has “downplayed” the significance of the sudden rise in suicides, and the potential role that changes in prison policy might be playing, which, the report points out “is ill-advised as it could be construed as complacency and a lack of urgency”. As serious, for the inquiry, was that the government had not arrived at a hypothesis as to why the rise had taken place.
The POA gave evidence to the committee noting that the day-to-day communication between prisoner and officer was “rapidly diminishing, with an inevitably deterimental impact upon security and safety.” The inquiry concluded that it is important that the prison service acts rapidly on the evidence of recent surveys to “ensure that staff feel valued and are given appropriate support to work in circumstances which are challenging at the best of times, but currently particularly pressured.”
Rehabilitation may become ‘inoperable’
The inquiry noted that some immediate issues that must be rectified as a matter of priority are “resolving staffing shortages and clearing the backlog of risk assessments.” These, the report argues, are essential “if support for offenders moving from custody into the community is to work to best effect.”
The huge backlog in risk assessments coupled with a shortage of staff to conduct them and properly manage rehabilitation is extremely worrying and represents a serious risk to public safety. Indeed, the committee observed that they will seriously impact probation services: “both issues are likely to hamper considerably the efforts of the new providers of Community Rehabilitation Companies as they seek to implement their through-the-gate services.”
On top of the decline of educational and rehabilitative activities within prisons, the process of risk assessments and moving offenders into communities has also been seriously affected. “There is a risk”, the report argues, “that such services could be rendered inoperable as a result of failures in the system that are the responsibility of NOMS.”
The inquiry report arrives at the inescapable conclusion that the government has failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the level of the crisis affecting our prison services: “The Government has been reluctant to acknowledge the serious nature of the operational and safety challenges facing prisons, and the role of its own policy decisions in creating them.” Further, “it is clear to us that the Ministry had not planned adequately for the risk of staffing shortages, and failed to act sufficiently quickly to mitigate them. This unsatisfactory outcome and sluggish response has risked jeopardising the safety of prisoners and prison staff.”
The Justice Committee’s report of their inquiry contains a series of recommendations.