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Prison Safety

Volume 771: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the latest figures on deaths in custody and prison violence, what plans they have to improve prison safety in the short term.

My Lords, the Government recognise that our prisons need reform. There is much more to do to ensure that prisons are places of decency, hope and rehabilitation, and improving safety is fundamental. There is no single, simple solution to the increases in deaths and violence in prison, but we are taking action. This includes implementing the recommendations from the review of the process to support prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm, and trialling the use of body-worn video cameras.

My Lords, my Question was quite specific. We commend the Government’s commitment to long-term prison reform, but last week’s figures demand immediate action to reduce prison violence. Homicides, assaults on prisoners and staff, suicide and self-harm are all up, by roughly a quarter overall—and that is over the previous dreadful year’s figures. We urgently need more staff, fewer prisoners, less of prisoners’ time spent locked in cells and an end to cell cramming. What action will the Government take now?

The noble Lord will know, because his party was in government for five of the last six years, that what happens in prisons represents a real challenge for any Government. However, I can tell him that prison officers have increased in number by 440 this year. Further to that increase, we are continuing our drive for more prison officers; the training is improving—going from six to 10 weeks; we are cracking down on psychoactive substances and their importation into prison; and we are acting through a number of different initiatives to identify particular risk points for violence. We are doing everything we can to tackle these very real problems.

My Lords, given the shocking revelations about the use of synthetic cannabis by prisoners, which the Chief Inspector of Prisons described as having a “devastating impact” on prisons, including 19 deaths between 2012 and 2014, when will the Government recognise the need to reduce the prison population substantially and to increase prison staffing substantially?

The prison population is of course a feature of the sentences passed by judges. We are as anxious as anyone else to reduce that prison population in a way that is consistent with the safety of the population and that respects the sentences that have been passed. I have already answered the question about increasing prison staff. As to psychoactive substances, we are world leaders in what we are doing to track the ingestion of these substances. We are trying a test to detect them in 34 different prisons. We hope, when that is proved successful, to roll it out through the prison estate, so that we have an offence and a test which should get this under control.

My Lords, what is the Government’s policy in relation to terminally-ill prisoners and the delegated authority of the governor, particularly for remand prisoners, who are innocent until proven guilty? If they are terminally ill, they risk dying in the prison sick bay rather than spending their last days and weeks at home prior to a trial.

All prisons, whether remand prisons or others, should have in place appropriate procedures for supporting prisoners in that condition. There should be appropriate arrangements for palliative care. Prisoners should have contact with their families and they should be advised, where necessary, of the possibility of compassionate release—either permanent release or release for particular events. This is a matter of importance and I will be sure to convey the noble Baroness’s concern.

My Lords, would it not be a suitable idea to ensure that any young person coming into custody has a single officer in the Prison Service responsible for his or her welfare? This was a very important and useful proposal, and I gather the Government have not yet accepted it.

I think my noble and learned friend refers to one of the recommendations from the Harris review, which concerned suicide and self-harm by those aged between 18 and 24. The Government have not rejected this as a proposal. They understand the necessity of continuity of accountability, but are not yet convinced that that can be best represented by a single person. However, what lies behind the recommendation is of course important and should be reflected in the Government’s policy.

My Lords, given the shocking 27% rise in suicides in prisons in the last year, what can the Minister tell us about the provision of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic care for vulnerable prisoners?

The Government are well aware of the profound difficulties for prisoners with various forms of mental illness. I think NICE has estimated that 90% of prisoners have some form of mental illness. It is a matter for NHS England to provide the appropriate facilities, but all prisons should make sure that these are available so far as possible. As to the question of assessment when prisoners arrive, NOMS has reviewed its assessment process to ensure that those at risk are properly assessed and appropriate steps are taken to try to deal with the risks that they represent.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reference to the review that I led, although I must say as the review’s author that the Government’s response read like a rejection of its central recommendation. The Minister talked about the welcome increase of 440, I think, prison officers. What are the projections for numbers, because 440 means that at any one time there may be one extra prison officer supervising 600 or more prisoners? Given that at the moment prisoners cannot be guaranteed an escort to take them to their psychiatric appointments within the prison and there is no guarantee that planned activities will take place because of staff shortages, surely the Government need to do better than 440.

As to the noble Lord’s first point, the Government accepted 62 of the 108 recommendations, and a further 12 are being considered alongside the reforms. Those that they did not accept were very useful and are part of the Government’s forward thinking. As to the question of staff, we are continuing our drive to attract more prison officers. We accepted in full the Prison Service Pay Review Body recommendation, which we hope will be an encouragement, although attracting prison officers to work in the south-east is difficult because of the challenges of accommodation. There is real commitment by a number of people to join the Prison Service; they have our admiration, and we hope that we can attract more to do this important work.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that out-of-cell activity is one of the most important ways to enhance morale among prisoners and reduce stress, which itself leads to violence?

My noble friend is quite right about that. He may well have read the observations of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister about the importance of out-of-cell activity. We hope that that will increase; it is very much part of our long-term plan to enable prisoners to have purposeful activities, which will help in the rehabilitation process.