There was an incident of unrest in Bedford Prison last weekend resulting in a Prison Officer being hospitalised with a serious head injury. I send my very best wishes to him and to his family for his recovery, but this shockingly violent attack is a symptom of a failing system. The weekend before I am told that five prison officers had to be taken to A&E following an episode of ‘concerted indiscipline’. Staff at Bedford Prison are working hard to address some of the problems within our own jail, but whilst I don’t doubt their commitment and commend them and for the improvements that have been made since last year’s unrest, it is clear that they still have some way to go.
Yesterday, I asked the Justice Secretary when he would act to ensure that our prison officers are safe in the line of duty. Trouble in our prison system is reaching epidemic levels – it is all very well for David Gauke to reference the astonishing figure of 8000 episodes of unrest throughout the prison system last year, but he needs to do something about it, not just express sympathy. Prison officers have as much right to expect to be safe in work as anyone else.
It is scandalous that we now have an assault approximately every 20 minutes in our prisons. The consequences of this violence are dire, when prisoners are locked up for long periods of the day in their cells to maintain safety, efforts to improve education, training or mental health services become almost irrelevant. In addition, it is terrible to see that self-harm and suicides in prisons are at record levels.
I agree with the Prison Officer’s Association that staffing shortages are driving the wave of violence in our prisons. Whilst I welcome the fact that the Government now acknowledges the damage done by prison officer cuts, and has begun to try to reverse this, the situation still requires improvement. It is troubling to see that whilst 1,200 extra officers were recruited over the past year, one in four prisons still had a fall in officer numbers over this 12-month period. Last year alone nearly 10% of the more experienced officer workforce left.
The Labour Party manifesto for the June 2017 General Election committed to publishing annual reports on prisoner-staff ratios, with a view to maintaining safety and ending overcrowding. It also pledged to lift the public sector pay cap, in order to help to increase the recruitment and retention of prison officers.I am concerned that our prisons are now moving beyond crisis and towards emergency. We have a huge amount to do in order to turn our prisons around and make them places where lives are transformed, to fulfil our main aim of creating safer communities.