MPs condemn Boris Johnson’s ‘policy by press notice’ approach to prisons

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MPs condemn Boris Johnson’s ‘policy by press notice’ approach to prisons

A view of D wing at HMP Wandsworth Prison. Pic: Andy Aitchison

MPs have condemned Boris Johnson’s ‘policy by press notice’ approach to prisons following a series of announcements widely seen as ‘electioneering tactics’. The House of Commons’ justice committee has published a issued a damning report into the state of prisons in England and Wales calling for ‘a long-term plan’ to improve jails underpinned by a ‘multi-year funding settlement’.

MPs described how the prison system was ‘enduring a crisis of safety and decency’. The Government recently announced that additional funds would be made available to prisons in England and Wales, with £100 million freed up to heighten security and £2.5 billion to fund 10,000 extra prison places.

However, the MPs challenged whether these funding commitments would address key underlying problems in the governance and maintenance of prisons. According to the Ministry of Justice’s safety and custody statistics, in a twelve month period to June 2019, there was a record high of incidents of self-harm in prisons with 60,594 instances recorded which was a 22% increase on the previous 12 months.

‘Too often we have seen what might be called ‘policy by press notice’ without any clear or coherent vision for the future of the prison system,’ said committee chair and Tory MP Bob Neill. ‘New prison places might be welcome, but they do nothing to improve the appalling condition of much of the current prison estate, nor the prospect of offering a safe environment in which to rehabilitate offenders.’

The report describes an antiquated system ‘much of which is in an appalling state of disrepair’, estimating a maintenance bill of nearly £1 billion. At present, more than 30 operational prisons in England and Wales were built before the 19th Century, with HMP Stafford, a men’s prison holding 751 inmates, first built in 1793.

One prison, HMP Leeds, has recently trialled a maintenance project where prisoners and staff work in tandem to perform minor repairs. MPs believe a similar approach should now be rolled out to all prisons saying that the present system of national contracts for facilities management is not fit for purpose.

The committee received written submissions, as well as hearing from a number of experts and prison staff earlier this year. Many of those called to give evidence highlighted the lack of support prison governors were provided by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service to make improvements to the safety of prisons and the rehabilitation of prisoners.

MPs challenged what they believed to be an excessive focus on assessing prison performance by measures of security rather than on prisoners’ quality of life, including time spent out of cells. ‘We do not believe prisons will become less violent without proper investment in purposeful activity for prisoners,’ the report said.