Knives, drugs and mobile phones are being thrown over the walls at a jail where two prison officers were assaulted on Sunday because there are not enough staff to patrol the grounds, Labour has claimed.
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said the attacks at Wormwood Scrubs were “entirely predictable” following a walk-out of staff over health and safety concerns.
He called on the Government to hire more prison officers, warning of increasing violence in English and Welsh jails and a heightened risk that a staff member could die after being attacked by an inmate.
Prisons minister Andrew Selous insisted officers have been recruited “at full strength” for two years, with an extra 2,830 hired since January 2015.
Mr Slaughter said a specialist “Tornado team” of officers was withdrawn from Wormwood Scrubs on Sunday when the attacks took place.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons, he said: “This attack was entirely predictable, so much so that two days before as you acknowledge, 70 members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs walked out specifically because they did not feel safe.
“And while Tornado officers were sent into the prison on Saturday, they were withdrawn on Sunday when the attacks happened.
“Will you say what specific steps are being taken to ensure safety in HMP Wormwood Scrubs?
“I’m told drugs, phones and even knives are being thrown over the walls because there are insufficient patrolling of the grounds and cell searches because of insufficient staffing numbers.
“Will additional officers be provided to undertake these basic tasks until order is restored and a review of staffing at this and similar prisons is undertaken?”
The Labour frontbencher said the attacks were “typical” of the dangers across the prison estate, with attacks on prison staff up 36% and serious harm and suicide at record levels.
“We’ve heard for a year that the Government wishes to transform our prisons, words are no longer enough, now it’s time for action before more prisons become ungovernable and we see more serious injuries or God forbid, the death of an officer on duty,” Mr Slaughter said.
Replying, Mr Selous said the Government does not tolerate violence against officers and that the alleged perpetrator, who was placed in solitary confinement, is now facing a police investigation and potential criminal charges.
The Prisons Minister acknowledged that violence and drugs were too prevalent in prisons and highlighted moves to recruit more officers, trial body worn cameras and toughen up smuggling laws.
He said Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s £1.3 billion plan to reform prisons and give autonomy to governors was key to improving jail conditions.
But Mr Selous claimed offenders are now more spontaneously violent than in the past.
“The nature of offenders currently in custody has changed,” he said.
“Today there are around 30% more people sentenced to prison for violent offences and prisoners are acting today often more spontaneously and more violently than they did in the past in order to achieve their objectives.”
He went on: “We have been recruiting at full strength for the last two years, we have recruited an extra 2,830 officers since January 2015 and we are continuing to recruit at that level to make sure that our prisons are adequately staffed.”
Mr Slaughter attacked Mr Gove for “neglecting his responsibility” by failing to attend the urgent question, suggesting the Eurosceptic Justice Secretary was distracted by the EU referendum campaign.
“The recent incidents are part of a pattern of unacceptable conditions, of unacceptable violent behaviour,” Mr Slaughter said.
“It cannot be right that prisoners, staff and ultimately the public are at risk from the failure of this Government to get a grip on the crisis in our prisons.
“That makes it all the more surprising that the Secretary of State (Mr Gove) is not here today.
“We all, whatever our view, are engaged in a referendum campaign, that is no reason for him to neglect his responsibility as Secretary of State.”
But Mr Selous defended his boss Mr Gove.
“I can also assure you that the Secretary of State takes this issue extremely seriously and it is our top priority as far as prisons are concerned,” he said.
SNP justice spokeswoman Joanna Cherry said overcrowding and poor conditions increase the risk of violence to staff and other prisoners.
She sought reassurances from Mr Selous that the UK Government’s “ideological drive to cut public services and shift to private sector provision will not further jeopardise” staff and prison safety.
Ms Cherry also encouraged him to follow the Scottish Government in creating a presumption against short sentences and also invest in community sentences in an attempt to address the underlying causes of crime.
Mr Selous said the Westminster Government is currently consulting on sentencing issues.
Conservative Victoria Prentis (Banbury) told the minister: “Today I met with the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman who told me that 61% of inmates on current estimates take these psychoactive substances at the moment.
“I wondered what consideration you have given to enlarging the area of smoke-free zones in prisons and to what extent you might feel that will help with the problems?”
Mr Selous replied: “You … are absolutely right at pointing the finger at the terrible damage caused by new psychoactive substances.
“I agree with you that as we roll out smoke-free prisons across England and Wales that will help us reduce the damage because often we know those psychoactive substances are sometimes openly smoked – the prisoners pretending that it’s tobacco when it’s not.
“So I’m with you in wanting to see the roll-out progress but we will only do so in a measured and safe way.”
Labour former minister Fiona Mactaggart said the number of assaults in prisons have doubled, adding staff numbers have fallen despite recent attempts to increase recruitment.
She said: “Those staff are frightened. We’re talking about brave prison officers who are scared to go to work.”
Mr Selous later said he believes it is “all too easy” for forbidden items to be thrown overprison walls, joking they do not have domes similar to the Eden Project.
Conservative Philip Hollobone (Kettering) told Mr Selous: “I think my constituents will be very surprised to hear quite how much stuff is being thrown over prison walls – mobile phones, drugs, lethal highs and knives.
“Surely in 2016, we’ve got the ability to stop this happening or at least to minimise it.
“What plans do you have and what can you tell the House about how we’re going to tackle this issue?”
Mr Selous replied: “These issues are not easy, our prisons are not like the Eden Project with a dome over the top of them and unfortunately it is all too easy to get things over aprison wall – as I saw when I went round HMP Rochester last Thursday morning.
“But you raise an important issue because what I think you’re pointing at is that all of us, particularly as Members of Parliament, have a role in getting the message out in our communities that these new psychoactive substances are lethally dangerous, they do terrible harm to the loved ones of families who inadvertently bring them in prisons,
“We need local communities to work with us, and the police, in trying to stop this terrible flow of evil drugs over prison walls.”
“When Wormwood Scrubs staff walked out and prisoners were confined to their cells, seeing their work, education and visits from loved ones cancelled at a moment’s notice, the problems were never going to be in keeping the prisoners locked up, it was inevitable there would be problems when they were opened up again – and the 2,830 new officers recruited since 2015 are but a fraction of the 12,530 officers we have lost since 2010.
“No prison officer should face being assaulted, assaults are wrong, they have the right to come to work and go home having worked in a safe and healthy environment – but equally they know they should not act to provoke prisoners by taking part in unlawful walk-outs.
“The POA need to teach their members that solutions to the difficult situations they face, the serious, dangerous, issues they have to confront on a daily basis on the landings, will never to be found outside the gate of Wormwood Scrubs, but rather on the other side of it, sitting around a table and resolving the issues.’