On 15 September, Victoria Prentis MP took part in a Westminster Hall debate on Prison Safety. As a member of the Justice Select Committee, Victoria takes a keen interest in all matters relating to the penal system.

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 15 September 2016.

Victoria Prentis (Con) (Banbury): I apologise that—with your permission, Mr Stringer—I have to leave before the end of the debate so I will not be here to hear the closing speeches. Members of the Justice Committee, and indeed anybody who has met me for longer than 10 minutes, will know that very few things could drag me away from a debate on prison safety, but I am afraid a meeting about the Boundary Commission and boundaries is one of them. I thank hon. Members for their indulgence on that score.

Serving on the Justice Committee is an enormous privilege and most of the time it is a pleasure. However, as is clear from the passion of Members’ contributions today, it is not always a pleasure, because we have heard some very disturbing facts and figures about safety in our prisons. I am not a stranger to the Prison Service, having conducted litigation on its behalf for many years—it is nice to see some former clients in the Box today. I know that the Prison Service is staffed by many dedicated individuals, who work hard to ensure that people in their custody are safe, and to rehabilitate them. I also know that the spotlight has never shone so brightly on what is happening inside our prisons.

Although our predecessor Committee felt that the Government and the National Offender Management Service had underplayed the seriousness of the situation, our Committee does not now feel that is the case. This year, the former Prime Minister and former Member of Parliament for Witney gave strong leadership in his speech on prisons. Both the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and the former prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), were aware of and open about the appalling state of prison safety.

The reform programme is bold and motivated by all the right reasons. In our report we praise the considerable efforts made by the Ministry of Justice and NOMS to alleviate the situation, but political will is very far from being enough. The previous Secretary of State’s response to our review was characteristically robust; he acknowledged the extent of the problem and found an extra £10 million to deal with aspects of it.

It has to be said that, in its short time in post, the new prisons team has made it clear that it is fully live to the issues. In its response to our report, it says that prison safety is the Department’s top priority. The new Secretary of State told us last week that the position was unacceptable, and the Department has confirmed that legislation will be put in place to continue the reforms set out by her predecessor.

So with all this light, why is the situation getting worse? In my view, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) was right: the ratio of staff to prisoners is critical. I also agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—despite the boundary changes, I will not call him the hon. Member for Wormwood Scrubs.

This is not a time for a debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) about whether the size of the custodial population matters, but it is clear that unless we are going to pour new resources into our Prison Service, we have to reduce numbers if rehabilitation is to be effective. I do not say that through a wish to be soft on criminals; rather the opposite. It is in all our interests for those in prison to be changed to stop them offending again. If the upshot of that is that tough diversionary sentences have to be used as an alternative to prison, effort should be put into piloting them. Restorative justice, as the Committee said in a previous report, may well have an important part to play.

Alex Chalk (Con) (Cheltenham): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of our problems as a society is that we have not quite solved the problem of how to generate a community penalty that is sufficiently robust that gives members of the public genuine confidence that it is a proper punishment? As soon as they feel that community penalties are a proper punishment, there will not be such an imperative to send so many people to prison

Victoria Prentis: 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.