This week the Justice Select Committee (which includes amongst its members Cheltenham MP, Alex Chalk) released its report into Prison Safety. Among other findings, the report noted that the number of self-inflicted deaths in prisons rose by 26% from March 2015-March 2016, whilst serious assaults increased by 31%, general assault incidents increased by 26%, and there was a 57% increase in the number of fires in adult prisons and young offender establishments. Speaking on the report, Chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill MP stated: ‘It is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and disorder’. Mr Neill went on to say that improving prison safety is a matter which ‘cannot wait’. Recruitment and retention of staff is highlighted as a key contributor to the increasingly unsafe climate facing the prison system. The report shows that the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers does not believe that recruitment has kept up with demand and that there is an ongoing reliance on staff on detached duty. Today, there are 7,000 fewer officers than in 2010 whilst the prison population is only around 2,500 lower. The Association believed that budget cuts, and resulting reductions in staffing, were intrinsically linked to the increase in violence, deaths and suicides. Minister of State for Prisons, Andrew Selous MP, commented that: ‘This report demonstrates very serious challenges facing the prison service and shows how badly prison reform is needed. We have secured £1.3 billion to modernise the prison estate and we have responded to staffing pressures with a national net increase of 530 officers, since January last year. These reforms will ensure prisons are places of decency and improve public safety by reducing reoffending’. The report cites drug abuse within the prison population as an example of the way in which the issue of lower staffing levels and prison safety are intrinsically linked. Staffing levels during visits are lower, there are fewer drug dogs, and there are fewer routine cell checks due to a lack of human resources - all of which contribute to a culture in which it is possible for prisoners to use both illegal and legal drugs. Alex Chalk, MP for Cheltenham, has been a key contributor to this report as part of his role on the Justice Select Committee. Mr Chalk commented that this was ‘a hard-hitting report about the conditions in our jails. So-called ‘legal-highs’ are contributing to an unacceptable climate of violence, and I am calling for decisive action - starting with recruitment of more prison officers - to take back control’. The report’s release comes just days before State Opening on Wednesday 18 May. During her Gracious Address, the Queen announced that the Government will introduce a penal reform bill which will see the biggest structural reform of the prisons system for more than a century. To read the full report, please click on the link below.
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