Today's Guardian gives Chris Grayling the opportunity of responding to issues raised in this morning's blog:-
Leftist critiques of the prison system bear no relation to reality
Prison is not meant to be comfortable. It’s not meant to be somewhere anyone would ever want to go back to. But the language being used by some pressure groups and commentators to talk about prisons bears little relation to reality.
I visit prisons regularly and get feedback from staff and inmates. I see a system which is adapting to deal with a much lower budget – like almost every other part of the public sector. The approach it is taking to deal with that pressure has been designed by governors and staff themselves – it seeks to find out where things are being done more cost-effectively across the prison estate and then to replicate that.
Despite this, our system is less overcrowded than it has been in a decade. Assault rates are lower than five years ago. We are bringing new employers into prison to provide work, in fields ranging from recycling to electrical-assembly to fashion. The number of hours of work in our prisons is rising steadily. So too are the numbers of prisoners studying for a qualification – and in youth-detention facilities we are doubling the amount of education done each week.
That is happening despite staff shortages in the south-east, where the buoyant labour market has created real recruitment pressure for us in the past six months – this at a time when there’s been a rise in the prison population – triggered in part by the rise in historic sex-abuse cases. We’re now recruiting 1,600 new officers to deal with that pressure.
It is happening despite the fact that we are housing far more violent offenders than we did a decade ago – and that institutions like HMP Isis, criticised for being violent, are dealing with the overspill of gang warfare from city streets.
The biggest failing of the current system, and one that I hear about regularly from prisoners, is the inadequate preparation for release, and the fact that short-sentence prisoners get no support when they leave. This is something we are now reforming, and when our probation changes come into force in a few weeks’ time, this situation will end, with the introduction of proper through-the-gate support for every prisoner.
The recent rise in self-inflicted deaths has been very unwelcome and unhappy. There has been no pattern to it – it has occurred in private prisons and public ones and in prisons where there have been staff reductions and others where there have been none. No one has been able to clearly identify a cause and the circumstances are all very different. Prison staff have put a huge amount of effort into tackling the problem – reducing these deaths is a top priority for us all.
Although there has been no pattern to the suicides we have seen, they underline the need for the next stage in our planned reforms. For the past two decades, since care in the community rightly ended the era of big Victorian asylums, too many of those who would once have ended up in an institution like that are now ending up in our prisons. There they all too often are pushed into a general prison environment, where there is not the expertise to deal with them. This has to be addressed.
There is excellent work already being done. I thought it was ironic that Wormwood Scrubs was lambasted recently for being dirty as a result of prisoners throwing litter, but received no public praise for its excellent work on mental health.
We have also introduced reforms to identify mental-health problems in police stations, so that people can be diverted away from the justice system and into treatment.
But we can and should do much more. So when the Ministry of Justice completes work on the introduction of a proper through-the-gate resettlement and support service, I plan to focus our reform agenda on the mental-health issue.
I want to work with the Department of Health to concentrate expertise in a way that means we can deliver the best possible treatment. I want to see prisoners getting support that is every bit as good as that which they would receive from the NHS in the community. We will explore the best way to deliver this, which could include specialist centres for mental health within our criminal-justice system.
Improved resettlement and mentoring of offenders, more education and work in prisons, and a new focus on mental health in prisons – at a time when we are having to make cutbacks to meet our overall budget targets. The irony is that none of these happened under Labour in the years when money seemed not to be a problem. Those on the left attacking us now would do well to remember that.