An extra £10 million is to be ploughed into prisons as part of urgent attempts to improve safety behind bars – at the same time as one expert commentator revealed the National Offender Management Service are refusing to proactively publicise deaths in custody at all.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced the funding as he conceded the most recent statistics on deaths in custody and violence in jails were “terrible”.
He disclosed the move in a letter to the Commons Justice Committee, which warned in a recent report that the issue threatens to “severely undermine” the Government’s prisons overhaul.
Figures published by the Ministry of Justice last month showed there were 100 apparent self-inflicted deaths in the year to March – the highest level for more than a decade.
There were more than 20,000 assaults in the 12 months to December, a rise of 27% year-on-year, and nearly 5,000 attacks on staff – a jump of more than a third compared with 2014.
Mr Gove said: “I am well aware that the most recent figures for deaths in custody and violence in prisons, which the Committee’s report highlights, are terrible.
“These cause me considerable personal concern, and I have no wish to minimise, excuse, or divert attention away from these increasing problems.
“I want to assure you and the Committee that there is no complacency in dealing with these issues.”
He set out a number of steps that have already been taken, including a net increase of prison officers of 530 since January last year, plans to roll out body-worn cameras across the estate and new laws to crack down on new psychoactive substances (NPS) – also known as “legal highs”.
Mr Gove said there is a need to “improve our ability” to respond to new threats faced by jails.
“I therefore wanted to make you aware that in addition to the £5 million which we have committed to rolling out body-worn cameras and additional CCTV, I have, with immediate effect, allocated an additional £10 million to deal with prison safety issues.”
He said the Government is “quite deliberately not being prescriptive” about how prison governors may use the additional funding, but set out possible uses including additional staff, investment in staff training, equipment and drugs testing,
Mr Gove added: “Ultimately I am clear that the only way to reduce violence in our prisons is to give Governors and those who work in prisons the tools necessary to more effectively reform and rehabilitate offenders.”
He also repeated his call for a rethink on the use of a scheme through which inmates can be let out for short periods towards the end of their sentence.
Mr Gove had signalled his backing for more prisoners to be released into the community on temporary licence in a recent speech.
He said in the letter: “Properly used, ROTL (release on temporary licence) can do a huge amount to improve a prisoner’s chances of finding a long-term job.
“ROTL eases the significant transition between custody and liberty, and enables prisoners to adjust to the expectations and demands of society.
“I am clear that allowing a prisoner out on temporary release is not an easy option – it is a preparation for the hard choices that life outside prison demands.”
An overhaul billed as the biggest shake-up of Britain’s prison system since the Victorian era was placed at the heart of the Queen’s Speech last week.
But Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales, revealed that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was refusing to publicise deaths in custody.
Mr Leech said: “I have recently asked the head of NOMS to change the policy by which they refuse to publicise on their own account deaths in custody as they occur.
“Regrettably NOMS have refused to do this citing what to me at least are arguments that have no logical reasoning.
“When someone in the custody of the State dies, whatever the cause of death, there is in my view a duty on the State to announce it and be transparent about it.
“I find it deeply regrettable that they refuse to do so.”
You can read the NOMS refusal correspondence here (read from the bottom up)