Liz Truss to continue Michael Gove's prison reforms
New justice secretary comments after chief prisons inspector Peter Clarke says ‘legal highs’ are making jails dangerous.
The new justice secretary, Liz Truss, is to press ahead “at pace” with her predecessor Michael Gove’s radical prison reform programme despite a fresh warning from the chief inspector of prisons that a surge in jail violence is putting it at risk.
Truss, responding to the warning from Peter Clarke, said it demonstrated why prison reform is so important. “I want to see radical reform and I am under no illusions about the scale of the challenge we face or how long reform takes … I will set out the next steps for this agenda in coming weeks, but I am clear that the vital work of prison reform will continue at pace,” she said.
Her statement will dispel fears among penal reformers that Truss was ready to ditch Gove’s plan, as she had co-written a 2011 book calling for prisons to be made “tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable” places of punishment.
Her remarks came in response to Clarke’s annual report, published on Tuesday, that said a rise in jail violence, largely fuelled by new psychoactive substances (NPS) – often referred to as “legal highs” – had left too many prisons across England and Wales “unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.
In his report, Clarke also issued a clear warning to Truss that the lack of any national strategy to tackle the crisis around new psychoactive substances, which has been linked to 39 deaths, was endangering Gove’s prison reform and rehabilitation programme.
“The situation in too many prisons is the lack of safety, and the inability to actually get prisoners to education and training poses a real risk to the government’s ambitions. Prisons need to be made safer for the reform programme to be achieved,” said the chief inspector.
Clarke, who took over the job in February, said conditions in prisons in some key areas had deteriorated even further since his predecessor’s valedictory judgment 12 months ago that overcrowding, levels of violence and staff shortages were at their worst for at least 10 years.
The former head of counter-terrorism policing, who was appointed by Gove and took over from Nick Hardwick, said in his first annual report: “I have found that the grim situation referred to by Nick Hardwick in his report last year has not improved, and in some key areas it has, if anything, become even worse.
What I have seen is that despite the sterling efforts of many who work in the prison service at all levels, there is a simple and unpalatable truth about far too many of our prisons. They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”
He reports that there were 20,000 assaults in prisons in England and Wales, an increase of 27% over the previous year. He said: “As if that were not bad enough, within that huge increase, serious assaults have risen by even more, by 31%, up to nearly 3,000. It is hardly surprising that in the face of this surge in violence, the number of apparent homicides between April 2015 and March 2016 rose from four [the previous year] to six.”
The report continued: “Over 32,000 incidents of self-harm in 2015 is an increase of 25% on the previous calendar year, and the tragic total of 100 self-inflicted deaths between April 2015 and March 2016 marks a 27% increase.”
The chief inspector said a large part of the rise in violence was caused by new psychoactive substances such as spice, he said, were having “a dramatic and destabilising effect in many of our prisons”. He linked their use to attacks on other prisoners and staff, self-inflicted deaths, serious illness and life-changing self-harm.
He said the situation has shown no sign of improvement since the prisons and probation ombudsman identified 39 deaths in prisons between June 2013 and June 2015 that could be linked to the use of new psychoactive substances.
He said some prisons were making every effort to mitigate the impact of these drugs by trying to disrupt the supply routes and lessen demand for them through education and targeted interventions. However, in other places the response had been more patchy, with no clear strategy in place.
Clarke said: “We have seen how NPS-fuelled instability has restricted the ability of staff to get prisoners safely to and from education, training and other activities. The implications of this for a reform programme based on enhancing the role of education in rehabilitation and resettlement should be obvious. Prisons are very good at keeping people in but they are much less good at keeping contraband out. There needs to be a strategy to prevent contraband getting into prison.”
Clarke said that in his inspections this year he met prisoners who had “self-segregated” – volunteered for solitary confinement in order to escape the violence linked to new psychoactive substances.
The chief inspector was also highly critical of the use of segregation units to house prisoners with mental health problems, saying nobody could sensibly argue that a segregation unit was a therapeutic environment.