Prisons are secure, but are they safe?

Last night I attended NEPACS AGM in Durham; following an amazing performance from Durham Recovery Choir during which several members were brave enough to share their stories. Frances Crook, Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform, delivered a speech addressing the question ‘Our prisons may be secure, but are they safe?’

Frances feels that prisons in England and Wales are secure; people do not escape (two in the past year) and out of the thousands of prisoners on day release or ROTL (released on temporary licence) there is rarely anyone that absconds. However, Frances went on to say that the same cannot be said about prisons being safe.

The Howard League have carried out Freedom of Information requests which shows there has been an overall cut of 41% in prison staff across England and Wales between 2010 and 2014. In the North East prison officer numbers have been cut by up to 49%;

  • HMP Durham staff reduced from 311 to 160 (49%)
  • HMP Frankland staff reduced from 604 to 420 (31%)
  • HMP Low Newton staff reduced from 141 to 100 (29%)

In London and the South it is difficult to recruit prison officers, so staff from the North East are being sent, on detached duty, to cover in prisons that they are unfamiliar with at a cost of £500 per officer per week.

Frances reported that violence in prison has increased. As the prison population continues to rise, attacks on prison staff, as well as prisoner on prisoner violence also increase. Sexual violence in prison is much higher than anticipated and those who become victims are highly likely to continue to be abused. Sadly, reporting of these crimes is very low (see Howard League’s coercive sex in prisons publication). Frances believes it is time to introduce something similar to the American Prison Rape Elimination Act 2003.

Frances did end her speech on a more positive note, stating that the number of young people in custody has reduced from over 3,000 to 1,000 in the past four years. There are currently only 44 girls under the age of 14 in custody, and 38 children aged 10-14 years old. There is no clear reason as to why this reduction has happened, but it is likely to be changes in the arrests system and how the police deal with young offenders. Frances believes that if you reduce entry into the Criminal Justice System then offending and reoffending in young people will be reduced. “The more we do, the worse we make it” she said. If their needs are addressed by health, housing, education etc then they are likely to move towards a crime free life. But once they become part of the cycle it is difficult to break.

During the question and answer session a father of a prisoner asked how moving his son 120 miles way from his family, from Durham to Preston, could be beneficial to anyone? The 120 mile trip is too much for the father to make with his grandchildren in winter and therefore the prisoner will not receive the visits he is entitled to during his sentence. Frances suggested visiting his MP to ask for their support in writing to the Justice Secretary, as families are so important in the rehabilitation of offenders.

It was a very emotional evening hearing stories from those with lived experience and it certainly gave me a lot of food for thought.