Prisons in crisis because of ‘absolutely crazy’ reforms, says former boss
Jails are facing their gravest crisis in a generation because of “absolutely crazy” job cuts and mismanagement by ministers for more than two decades, a former Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned. Lord Ramsbotham delivered a devastating critique of a system struggling with overcrowding, violence and drugs and called for drastic action to cut numbers behind bars. He spoke out in an interview with i ahead of the expected publication this month of Government plans to overhaul the running of English and Welsh prisons. The crossbench peer, who was Chief Inspector for six years, said the system had endured continual chaos in the 26 years since a landmark report by Lord Woolf into prison conditions.
“It’s in crisis, but I think that it’s an avoidable crisis because it has been made a great deal worse by the deliberate actions of ministers and their officials.” He reserved his fiercest criticism for Chris Grayling’s tenure as Justice Secretary between 2012 and 2015 when spending on prisons was heavily cut.
“Chris Grayling’s dreadful so-called reforms have been nothing short of a disaster,” said Lord Ramsbotham, who has been a prison reform campaigner since stepping down in 2001 as chief inspector. “He reduced the prison staff by a third – that was absolutely crazy. The numbers are now a ratio of one officer to six prisoners.” That compared with a ratio of one to three in 1980 and one to just over two in 1990, he said.
His comments follow an inspection report last week which found the situation at Exeter jail was “fragile”, with only 29 officers on duty for 490 prisoners. He said: “The people who I blame as much as Chris Grayling for implementing this are the officials who should have stood up and been counted over that. “They knew perfectly well that staff numbers were in a drastic situation – they should have said so.”
Lord Ramsbotham was dismissive of last year’s announcement by Liz Truss, the current Justice Secretary, of plans to recruit an extra 2,500 prison staff. “The trouble is if you recruit 2,500 they are going to take some time to get trained. But [ministers] deliberately got rid of people who knew what they were doing, they were experienced,” he said.
Ghastly suicide rates
Staff shortages are at the root of problems besetting jails that have led to “ghastly suicide rates” and increasing levels of violence faced by officers and inmates alike, he said. The situation was now more serious than it has been since Lord Woolf’s 1991 report following riots at Strangeways prison in Manchester.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We are committed to making our prisons places of safety and reform. “Since taking up her role, the Justice Secretary has taken urgent action to stabilise the estate by tackling the drugs, drones and phones that undermine security. We are also investing £100m annually to boost the frontline by 2,500 officers. “These issues will not be resolved in weeks or months but our wholescale reforms will lay the groundwork to transform our prisons, reduce reoffending and make our communities safer.”
Inmate numbers should be slashed
Lord Ramsbotham called for the prison system to undergo a radical restructuring, including slashing numbers in custody from more than 85,000 to around 50,000. The former Army general suggested the cut could be achieved if courts handed out more community sentences to minor offenders. Inmates with mental health problems should be diverted into specialist treatment and foreign prisoners immediately deported at the end of their sentences. He said overcrowding is now so bad that programmes, including mental health and drug treatment, “can’t be delivered”.