Data released yesterday lays bare the true scale of the growing crisis in our prisons. Suicides up 69 per cent in a year. Self-harm up 27 per cent since 2010. Serious assaults up 30 per cent, and the numbers absconding up 10 per cent in a year. One in five prisons rated ‘of concern’ – double the figure 12 months before. Sharp falls in courses to help reform prisoners. Hundreds of sex offenders no longer getting the courses they need to stop them re-offending.
Yet you wouldn’t have known this by what the Justice Secretary was doing yesterday. While he was off giving a speech way outside his own brief, his department slipped out this data. But if Chris Grayling hoped his speech would be a smokescreen, masking these damning statistics on his stewardship of the prisons system, he was spectacularly wrong. Many of today’s papers cover the deterioration in our jails. The Sun newspaper certainly didn’t miss how bad things are getting – its editorial said:
‘Mr Grayling’s priorities, regardless of his budget, must be the security of the public and prison officers – and the welfare of inmates. His department’s failing on all three.’
For many in and around the prisons system, yesterday’s stats weren’t a surprise. They’ve been warning of a growing crisis for some time, as have I. Just 6 weeks ago the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned:
‘…the situation is extremely serious and I am very concerned.’
But the Government’s response was to deny there was a problem. Chris Grayling, ostrich-like, stuck his head in the sand. The lack of leadership is astonishing.
I don’t doubt some of this is embarrassment, as this is a self-inflicted crisis. The government has closed down 18 prisons, many of which were rated good. Those new prisons which began construction under Labour and have opened in the last 4 years – Thameside, Isis and Oakwood – have underperformed and are deemed ‘of concern’ by the Ministry of Justice’s own rating system.
In fact, so many prisons have been closed that the system has gone from having 5,000 spare places to just a few hundred some weeks. Hundreds of prisoners have been put in police station cells; 600 emergency places were bought from private jails at a heavy cost to the taxpayer; and, most recently, 40 of the country’s most overcrowded jails were told to take even more inmates.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, last year £45million of taxpayers’ money was spent on sacking thousands of prison officers. Fast forward a year and the system is so short of staff that many jails are only kept going by bussing in officers who are willing to do overtime from other prisons. Reports of jails locking prisoners in their cells for most of the day are increasingly common. Now, out of desperation, millions is being spent to re-recruit staff previously sacked! You really couldn’t script worse incompetence.
Some will question why any of this matters. Well, 9 out of 10 of those behind bars will be out, walking the streets within a decade. No one wants them to return to a life of crime on their release. Prison rightly is a time of punishment. But it’s also for reform, with courses tackling behavioural problems or health issues, and education and training to give prisoners the skills they need for the outside.
But does anyone seriously think this kind of activity is happening when there’s chronic overcrowding, major staff shortages and violence and death is commonplace? The reality is that the prison crisis is completely of this government’s making and will do nothing to cut re-offending rates. It might even make things worse. That’s why it matters, because this government is putting the public’s safety at risk.
Sadiq Khan is the Shadow Justice Secretary and Labour MP for Tooting.
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