The prisons specialist tactical response ‘Tornado’ team that attends serious incidents was called out more times in the first eight months of this year than in the whole of 2012, prompting Labour to warn of a growing crisis in prisons.
Tornado Teams from the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) was called out 132 times in the first eight months of 2013, compared with a total of 129 callouts over the whole of last year, official figures showed.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan claimed prisons have become more overcrowded and dangerous under the coalition Government and warned that convicts still spend as much time in their cells as they did three years ago and so have less chance of being rehabilitated.
By October 1 the NTRG had been called out 151 times, with 19 callouts in September alone. There have been more callouts in 2013 than in any of the last four years.
Nearly half of all prisons (45%) in England and Wales run by both the private and public sectors have had call-outs since 2010.
Mr Khan, who uncovered the figures using a parliamentary question, said: “The true scale of the growing crisis in our prisons on (Justice Secretary) Chris Grayling’s watch is laid bare in this information which I have uncovered. In the first eight months of this year, there had been more prison disturbances severe enough to call out the specialist response team than in the whole of 2012. And if the number of disturbances continue at this level for the rest of this year, there will have been a doubling over the three years of this Tory-led Government.
“All this Government’s talk of a rehabilitation revolution is but a distant memory. Instead, prisons are more overcrowded and dangerous than in May 2010, with prisoners spending as much time festering in their cells as they did three years ago. This means not working or attending training courses which in turn means less chance of being rehabilitated or paying something back to society.
“The incompetence of the Justice Secretary is breathtaking. Given how bad things are getting on his watch, it really calls into question whether Chris Grayling is fit to even be Justice Secretary”
Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said the “slight rise” in callouts over recent months was “mainly” due to minor incidents such as prisoners protesting.
Mr Wright, who answered Mr Khan’s question, said there had been no rise in the number of serious incidents being attended.
He said: “The number of callouts has been fairly consistent over the period in question, though there has been a slight rise in the number of callouts over recent months. This is mainly due to minor incidents such as prisoners protesting by climbing onto the netting between landings.
“NTRG staff have the specialist skills required to deal with such incidents which accounted for 68% of all the callouts in the past year and they are frequently called to attend as a precautionary measure.
“Not all callouts result in engagement by NTRG staff, with a number of situations being resolved locally. Of the 151 incidents NTRG attended up to September 2013, 75% were resolved by surrender. There has been no rise in the number of serious incidents being attended.”
Prison reform charity the Howard League for Penal Reform warned of a “creeping pressure” on the prison system which could lead to more disturbances and disorder.
Chief executive Frances Crook called for a focus on probation to reduce reoffending and the cost to taxpayers.
She said: “We are concerned that there is creeping pressure on the prison system and that this will create more disturbances and disorder.
“At a time when the number in custody is rising, the Ministry of Justice is facing a dilemma – either use police cells or cram ever more people into combustible prisons. Either approach is a waste of money and risks lives.
“The grown-up choice is to support successful probation programmes which reduce reoffending, reduce the number of victims and cost the taxpayer much less.”