Caroline Flint: Staff numbers vital in prison reforms

Don Valley MP Caroline Flint has spoken out on staff shortages in prisons.
Don Valley MP Caroline Flint has spoken out on staff shortages in prisons.
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I HAVE three prison establishments in Don Valley: HMP Hatfield, which is an open establishment; HMP Moorland, a category C secure prison with 340 sex offenders, 260 foreign prisoners from 40 nationalities and 480 other cat C prisoners; and HMP Lindholme, with 1,000 prisoners in a cat C secure prison.

In Doncaster itself and the Doncaster Central constituency, there is another prison, which is a private establishment. I have visited these prisons over many years, and the relationship has been good, with the community assured that whatever is happening in the prisons it is not having an adverse effect on them, although we have seen a rise in the number of people absconding from the open establishment.

One of the things of which I was most proud when I was a Minister in the Home Office was the introduction of drug testing on arrest for acquisitive crime, so that the drug problem that was leading people to steal could be identified, and people could be put into treatment even before they ended up in court. I believe we should do everything we can to address the causes of crime, as well as being “tough” when people break the law.

The Government have owned up to the problem. It has been acknowledged that the levels of assault on staff are the highest on record and rising. Comparing the year to June 2016 with the same period in 2012 shows that total assaults in prisons are up by 64 per cent; assaults on staff are up 99 per cent; incidents of self-harm are up 57 per cent; and deaths in custody are up 75 per cent.

Prisons are less safe for staff, but also less safe for prisoners. As the Lord Chancellor (Elizabeth Truss) wrote in November that “almost half of prisoners commit another crime within a year of release”. So the system is failing to rehabilitate and, as such, is failing to protect the public from further crime. As she also wrote in November in the Daily Mail: “What is clear is that the system is not working.” I am afraid that what is also clear is that on the coalition Government’s watch and on this Government’s watch, the Government are failing, too. They are failing in their duty to care for prison officers and staff; failing in their duty of care of prisoners who are more likely to be assaulted, to injure themselves or take their own life; failing in their duty of care to the public, as they are failing to reduce recidivism; and failing the taxpayer. In the Justice Secretary’s own words, the Government have admitted that the cost of reoffending is £15bn.

If we look at violence in prisons, we find that the latest safety in custody statistics show for the year up to September 2016: 324 deaths in prison; 107 self-inflicted deaths; a doubling of self-inflicted deaths among women prisoners — from a low base, but importantly up from four to eight; and over 36,000 cases of self-harm, which is a staggering 426 incidents of self-harm for every 1,000 prisoners. The figures also show 10,544 prisoners self-harming and 2,583 hospital attendances, with injuries serious enough to require hospital treatment.

In the year to June 2016, there were 23,775 assaults, an increase of 34 per cent — that is 278 assaults for every 1,000 prisoners — and 3,134 serious assaults, an increase of 32 per cent.

There is much in the Government’s plans that needs to be discussed. It refers to improved training for staff, the piloting of body-worn video cameras, and cognitive skills programmes for prisoners so that they respond to problems without using violence. I approve of all that. The White Paper also recommends governors should have more freedoms. I can tell the Secretary of State that in one of the prisons in my constituency, the turnover of governors over the last decade has been enormous. We need governors who can stay put and bring about any changes that they want to introduce.

The Secretary of State has promised 2,500 more staff, but that will not return staff numbers to their 2010 level. The number of operational staff at HMP Lindholme, in my constituency, fell from 352 in March 2010 to 296. That is a loss of one in seven staff in three years. In HMP Moorland, the number fell from 386 to 354, which is a nine per cent drop in three years. Between 2015 and 2016, 300 to 800 prison officers were recruited in each quarter, but even that has failed to stem the shortfall. Moreover, we are dealing with an ageing prison population. It is important to look at new ideas for the support and rehabilitation of prisoners, but without the right staff numbers, I think that that will be a tall task, if not impossible to achieve.

Caroline Flint is the Labour MP for Don Valley, who spoke in a Commons debate on prisons.