Government cuts and reforms to the prisons system in England and Wales have made a “signification contribution” to a deterioration in safety over the past two years, a parliamentary report has found.
Following a year-long inquiry, the cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee voiced “grave concern” over increases in assaults on staff and inmates, suicides, self-harm and indiscipline in prisons between 2012 and 2014.
It said that it was “improbable” that the decrease in safety was unconnected to Government reforms and a fall in staffing levels caused by redundancies and increased turnover of prison officers.
The committee said the Government had “failed to plan adequately” for the risks likely to result from staffing shortages, which have in some cases resulted in “severely restricted” education and work opportunities for inmates, and responded “sluggishly” when problems became apparent.
Reduced staff numbers have led to low morale and problems in retaining officers, and the pressures prisons are under risk undermining rehabilitation programmes, said the report.
It warned that there was “a very real danger of unmanageable growth” in the prison population, which would limit the system’s ability to prevent crime.
The report cited official figures showing that numbers of suicides in English and Welsh jails rose from 123 to 141 between 2012 and 2014.
Comparing the first nine months of 2014 with the same period of 2012, assaults on staff and fellow inmates had risen by 7.1% and self-harm by 9%, while recorded incidents of “concerted indiscipline” rose from 94 to 153.
The increases came at a time when the Ministry of Justice was implementing a modernisation programme to replace old prisons with new facilities, making efficiency savings and introducing changes to the incentives and earned privileges schemes for prisoners.
The report said: “Evidence from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Government’s own performance data, independent monitoring boards, and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman all 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.
“The decrease in safety is particularly troubling, with an increase in assaults and self-inflicted deaths.
“We considered it improbable that there is no link between estate reconfiguration, benchmarking, and changes in operational policy, including the incentives and earned privileges scheme, and the shift in safety across the prison estate.
“In particular, we conclude that the fall in staffing levels stemming from redundancies and increased turnover, which at their most acute have resulted in severely restricted regimes, are bound to have reduced the consistency of relationships between officers and prisoners, and in turn affected safety.”
The cross-party committee called on ministers to rethink the use of custody to protect the public and prevent crime in a cost-effective way.
In November 2014, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 85,925 – close to the record – and the system had one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, at 149 per 100,000 people, said the report.
“We express concern that despite the Government’s efforts to supply sufficient prison places to meet demand, the proportion of prisons that are overcrowded is growing, and the proportion of prisoners held in crowded conditions remains at almost a quarter, with consequent effects on the ability to maintain constructive regimes,” said the committee.
Staffing levels may need to be increased to restore earlier performance levels, it said, and it questioned the Government’s policy of using the rebuilding programme to create large multi-purpose prisons, suggesting that smaller, more specialised institutions for young offenders and female prisoners might be preferable.
Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith said: “Prison has been treated for too long as a ‘free good’. Failing to evaluate its cost effectiveness is fiscally irresponsible, particularly in the context of reduced public funding.
“We need to get away from arguments about which party is hard or soft on crime, and have a political and media debate which focuses on the three things which people care about: evidence of what works, public safety, and the effective use of taxpayers’ money.”
He added: “The committee has repeatedly emphasised the dangers of allowing the prison population to escalate and consume huge resources which could be better spent on preventing crime, for example, by dealing with drug and alcohol addiction and further expanding programmes like the Troubled Families programme.”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This devastating report is a powerful indictment of this Government’s complacent and dismissive attitude to rapidly deteriorating standards and safety in our prisons over the last two years.
“Soaring levels of violence, a 100% increase in acts of concerted indiscipline, shocking rates of suicide and self-harm, chronic and growing overcrowding, a slump in purposeful activity, dangerously low staffing levels and plummeting staff morale reveal a prison service under unprecedented strain.
“There is a threshold beneath which it is no longer possible to maintain a safe and decent environment. This report reveals that we are at that threshold.”
The Ministry of Justice said it would consider the report carefully, but said it had already responded to pressures by setting a target – which it expects to meet – to recruit 1,700 prison officers this year.
The package of reforms and rebuilding would save the taxpayer £300 million annually from 2015/16 and the total number of hours worked in prisons had increased from 10.6 million to 14.2 million over the past four years, said the department.
Prisons minister Andrew Selous said: “Our modernisation programme has created an estate fit for purpose, and saved the taxpayer millions of pounds. Staffing levels were agreed with both prison governors and the unions at the outset and they have done an excellent job during a period when the prison population has unpredictably risen.
“This Government will always have enough space for those sent to us by the courts. And we will continue to maintain the safety of the estate, including with tough new measures to crackdown on new synthetic drugs which are driving much of the increase in prisoner violence.”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: “Independent evidence is stacking up concerning the prisons crisis caused by the policies of David Cameron’s Government.
“Prison should be about punishment and reform if reoffending rates are to be cut and the public kept safe.
“Instead, this Government’s policies have seen jails turn into dens of violence where inmates are idling away their time in their cells instead of being on courses or working.”