Closures of ageing jails on hold for five years as prison numbers soar
The head of the prison service has ruled out any closures over the next five years, shelving a 2017 Conservative manifesto pledge to shut down and sell off dilapidated Victorian jails across England and Wales.
Michael Spurr, the head of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation service, has said it had been an “incredibly difficult” summer after an unexpected summer surge in prisoner numbers to a record 86,000 prisoners, and further rises forecast to come. “I anticipate that we won’t close any prisons this parliament,” Spurr told the annual conference of the prison governors’ association in Derby on Wednesday.
It is now expected that Hindley young offenders’ institution and prison in Wigan, and Rochester jail in Kent, both of which had been earmarked for redevelopment, will now remain open. Home Office plans were also revealed this week to turn the Verne immigration detention centre in Dorset back into use as a prison, reducing its capacity by 20%. Spurr said plans to provide 10,000 extra prison spaces this parliament were still on track, with the 2,100-place HMP Berwyn in Wales opening in phases.
Michael Gove made a high profile pledge when he was justice secretary to close “ageing and ineffective” Victorian inner city jails. The revival of longterm “new for old” plans was enshrined in the latest Tory manifesto, which promised to “invest over £1bn to modernise the prison estate, replacing the most dilapidated prisons and creating 10,000 modern prison places”. It now seems likely that manifesto pledge will be abandoned.
Spurr said Ministry of Justice officials were “still trying to understand” the reasons behind the surge in the prison population between May and August this year, when it went up by 1,200. He told the prison governors he had never known the jail population to rise by so much in such a short space of time. “It did shock us through the summer,” he said.
Officials believe the unexpected rise might have involved a number of factors, including major court cases finishing and changes to police bail arrangements. The unforeseen surge in prison numbers was accompanied by a sharp upwards revision of prison population projections. Prisoner numbers are expected to hit 88,000 by March 2022.
The former director general of the prison service, Phil Wheatley, told the Guardian in August that the summer surge in numbers was adding to the pressures on a jail system that was “already woefully short of space” and subject to frequent riots that took out cell spaces. He said the rise in jail numbers had “more or less wiped out” the value of a boost in the number of prison officers and prevented the closure of older jails.
Meanwhile, the chief inspector of prisons has revealed that substantial numbers of convicted sex offenders who have been sent to a Yorkshire prison with problems with violence in order to “stabilise it” have not been provided with adequate programmes to challenge their offending.
Peter Clarke said that over the course of the past year number of sex offenders held at Doncaster prison had trebled as part of a deliberate policy in order to help to stabilise the prison because of the serious problems with violence. He said that while levels of violence had been reduced they were still too high and came about at the expense of the rehabilitative needs of the sex offenders. The prison service confirmed that decision to increase the number of sex offenders at the Serco-run prison was not national policy but part of a local strategy to improve stability at the jail. A new specific houseblock with a regime for sex offenders had been opened.
Probation officers will be able to impose new licence conditions on prisoners leaving jails including bans on alcohol, gambling and access to online content, under changes announced by the prisons minister Sam Gyimah on Thursday. He said those who failed to stick to the tailored restrictions could find themselves recalled to jail.
Meanwhile Tornado teams had to deal with trouble at another prison overnight, possibly linked to the recently-introduced smoking ban. This from the BBC website:-
Long Lartin: Prison staff 'attacked with pool balls'
Staff were attacked with pool balls during a disturbance at a high-security prison, the BBC understands. Up to 80 inmates at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire became violent, forcing staff to retreat, a source said. BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said he understood about 10 "Tornado teams" of riot officers were sent to the prison on Wednesday.
The Prison Service said the incident had been "successfully resolved" by Thursday morning. No staff or inmates were injured, it said. "We do not tolerate violence in our prisons, and are clear that those responsible will be referred to the police and could spend longer behind bars," it added.
Our correspondent said there had previously been serious violence in local and training prisons, but to have a disturbance like this at a high-security jail would cause alarm at the MoJ. He said staff on E wing had retreated and it had been secured, so the troublemakers could not go elsewhere. There were also reports of a separate protest elsewhere in the jail, our correspondent said. The disturbance followed riots at a number of jails in recent years, including Lewes, Bedford, Birmingham and Swaleside.
Any disturbance at a prison is worrying, but at Long Lartin it's particularly worrying. It's one of the highest-security prisons in England and Wales; two-thirds of the inmates are serving life sentences. Normally the higher staffing ratios and older age of the prisoners means you get less trouble. But like all prisons, Long Lartin has suffered cuts and has lost a fifth of its staff.
HMP Long Lartin is a maximum security jail which also holds up to 622 male inmates. The category A prison has housed a number of high-profile inmates, including radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza and murderer Christopher Halliwell. Four prisoners have been killed at the jail in the last four years. Child murderer Subhan Anwar was strangled in 2013, while killer John York was beaten to death in his cell in 2015. In June 2016, Sidonio Eugenio Teixeira was killed using a rock wrapped in a pair of socks. Two inmates who murdered a fellow prisoner were jailed for life last month.
An inspection report published in 2014 described a "calm, well controlled prison". "But, while violence and bullying were few, there continued to be some very serious incidents," it added.