Private Prisons Fiasco

Private Prisons Fiasco

In April, the Government announced it would take HMP Birmingham permanently back from G4S into public ownership, after an appalling violence and inspection report last August.

Despite this failure, the Government plans to invest in private prisons, starting with two additional prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva whilst HMP Bedford is starved of adequate funds.

Under the Conservatives, the driving down of prison staffing levels and budgets was an explicit attempt by the former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to lower the costs of public prisons to those in the private sector.

This has proven a dangerous race to the bottom. Grayling also oversaw the disastrous outsourcing of prison maintenance works to Carillion.

Despite the widespread failings at private prisons, the same companies – G4S, Sodexo, Serco, and others  – involved in these failures could be charged with running the proposed new private prisons.

These new private prisons are to be built with public money, with notorious blacklist Kier winning the construction contract for the first of them in Wellingborough, yet the profits won’t go into the public purse as the prisons will be then be handed over the private sector.

I asked the new Prison’s Minister why the public sector was banned from bidding for the contract and his answer made no sense. He said he wanted to keep the distribution balanced by offering half to the private and half to the public sector. He cited HMP Birmingham as an example of awarding a contract to the public sector, yet it only came back into public ownership at a cost of £450m because the private company G4s was stripped of the contract when it failed so spectacularly to run it safely. 

The Government defends its decision to build more private prisons by arguing that all opposition is simply “ideological”, but the truth is that running prisons for profit simply doesn’t work.

Today, I asked the Justice Secretary David Gauke why the public sector were not allowed to bid for the contract to build the new prison at Wellingborough. His dismissive response about the need to ‘balance the estate’ and have a ‘mix of providers’ is absolute nonsense. I seriously doubt that there is any evidence whatsoever that having such a mix is beneficial and it is clear in fact that both the privatisation of the prison and probation service has failed.

I’ll follow up my question with a letter, asking him to explain his comments – and also to tell me why our local prison is being starved of much needed investment.

HMP Bedford

HMP Bedford

I’ve been pushing for issues around Bedford prison to be addressed since my election, and most recently I’ve twice brought a serious security issue to the House of Commons – and in writing – but to no avail. There are broken screens at HMP Bedford that have resulted in constituents who live close to the prison having to put up with loud, intimidating and lewd behaviour from prisoners, and daily intrusions on to their properties by criminals smuggling contraband through their gardens and over the prison wall.

The Prisons Minister Rory Stewart MP committed to immediately raising the matter with the governor, but this easy to fix security issue has still yet to be addressed. I’ll be picking this up with him again next week.

Mr Stewart has used smoke and mirrors when he claimed this week there’s been a drop in violence across the ten ‘back to basics’ prisons, whilst the actions and financial support necessary to make improvements to security and living conditions across the prison estate, including HMP Bedford, have not been forthcoming.

These are desperate tactics here from a minister who gave a commitment to resign if he failed on prison safety, yet apparently has done little to address the terrible conditions within the prison itself.

If the recent HMIP report is anything to go by, Bedford Prison certainly ought to have been identified as one of the worst in the country. But perhaps acknowledging a problem that his government will not commit the resources to fix is not convenient.

Prison Safety and HM Prison Bedford

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.