VICTORIA CONTRIBUTES TO DEBATE ON PRISON SAFETY

In September 2016, the Justice Select Committee, of which Victoria Prentis MP is a member, published its report into safety in prisons. On 15 September the House of Commons had the opportunity to debate the Committee’s report. Victoria contributed to the debate, and the text of her speech can be found below.

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 12 September 2016:

Victoria Prentis (Con) (Banbury): My hon. Friend is right. He will remember that, on our excellent Justice Committee trip to some restorative justice schemes in the United States, we saw some really good new alternatives to prison that we are extremely keen to see taken up and piloted here. They may well be part of the solution, but public opinion will have to be brought along with us. If results can be shown to be good, I am confident that public opinion will come along too—even in Shipley.

I do not see how it is possible to run safe prisons, let alone rehabilitative prisons, with insufficient staff. Prison officers have only limited time to give to supervision and to building up the relationships that we know help people to change. It is often difficult to find sufficient staff to move prisoners to the classrooms for desperately needed education. We have heard examples of wings where only one officer is now on duty when there were previously two. A body-worn camera, while welcome, is not the same as two sets of eyes. There is concern that lack of patrolling perimeter fencing is making it too easy to smuggle contraband.

We applaud the Department’s efforts to recruit more staff, but experienced officers take years of training and greater efforts must be made to retain them. The former prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), has covered that issue fully; I emphasise his point that it is the net gain in numbers that should always be considered when looking at staffing levels.

The second reason, in my view, for the continued decline in safety is the exponential increase in the use of new psychoactive substances. The prisons and probation ombudsman says that 61% of prisoners use them regularly and that they have overtaken tobacco as the currency of choice inside.

During an excellent session at Reform earlier this summer, a prison officer told us about an inmate who had been found unconscious in his cell. Four officers went inside to assist him and all four of them needed hospital treatment for secondary inhalation. These drugs are not cannabis as some Members of the House may have known it; they are cannabinoids and they are very dangerous mind-altering substances, which are doing extraordinary damage to our prisoners.

The Government have criminalised possession of these substances, but a great deal of resource needs to be put into testing these drugs and searching for them if we are ever to hold back the tide of them. Blocking mobile phone signals, which we now have the ability and the powers to do, is surely a good step to consider, while we fight the organised providers of these drugs. I hope that the body scanner being trialled in Wandsworth works and that this device can be rolled out very speedily to other establishments. The Committee looks forward to hearing further details about it.

As others have already said, it is now for the new team of Ministers to put the flesh on the bones of the reform programme. I am grateful for the taster that we have had of that programme in the Government’s response to our report. In my view, prison reform is not a place for dogma, and there is considerable consensus across the House and on our Committee about what needs to be done. Forgive me for saying so, but we have a captive audience and it should be possible to pilot the best schemes, and to assess quickly the extent to which new ideas work. Historically, a shameful lack of data have been produced by the Ministry of Justice, but slowly that issue is being addressed. Nevertheless, the new ministerial team needs to be very vigilant about it.

To add to the list of those reforms currently under way, which are set out in the Government’s response, I would also suggest focusing on improvements to assessment on entry to prison, and asking new prisoners about previous head injuries and traumatic experiences surrounding bereavement, all of which are proven, as we know, to indicate a greater propensity to self-harm. Those prisoners who are recalled should be properly assessed, however many times they have been inside prison before, as we know that they are particularly vulnerable.

Busy prisoners are safer prisoners, and real resource must go into both education and employment. Almost half of prisoners lose touch with their families, and yet it has been shown that those prisoners who maintain family relationships through visits demonstrate a 39% reduction in reoffending. Better visits, Skype and in-cell telephones should not be seen as “nice to have” luxuries that for lily-livered liberals or prisoners but as a useful tool in the fight against future crime.

Of course, all these ideas need testing and evaluation, and the Daily Mail and Shipley will not like them all. I accept that it is difficult to push through major reforms at the same time as managing a dangerous and—quite frankly—unstable situation, but unfortunately the Department does not have time on its side.