Public safety is undermined when we fail to ensure prison safety

Public safety is undermined when we fail to ensure prison safety

  • Rory Geoghegan
  • 15 June 2017
  • Posted in: Planning & Development, Management & Leadership

Prison safety is integral to being “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. Tony Blair’s mantra from the 1990s – has become seered into the public consciousness – and captured the mood of a nation towards crime and criminality. The fact that successive governments have broadly maintained such a position, speaks to a public and political consensus that simultaneously sees prison as both a valuable disposal for use by a court to protect and punish – and an opportunity to reform and rehabilitate offenders.

However, the value of prison is diminished when prison safety is under threat. Prisons find themselves unable to operate a full and effective regime, the behaviour and morale of prison staff is negatively affected and of course prisoners themselves suffer from the change in regime and behaviour. Then, of course, there is the harm that comes from the unlawful violence and threats of violence.

The trajectory on prison safety has – alas – in recent years been a negative one. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, in his recent annual review found that safety outcomes had deteriorated – with 83% of reports recording safety as ‘good’ or ‘reasonably good’ in 2010/11, compared to barely half in 2015/16.

Like a wage-price spiral in economics, in prison we see a safety-activity spiral. As establishments become less safe, the quality and quantity of purposeful activity is diminished. This can be observed with prisoners spending more time in their cells and less time either associating or engaging in education, work or other activities.

Over the same period we have seen prison officer numbers fall. The number of operational prison officers (band 3-4) has fallen from almost 20,000 in 2010 to just over 15,000 today. The net loss of some 5,000 prison officers masks also an issue of turnover, in which experienced officers have left the service. This too will clearly have had an impact on the ability of prisons to deliver all that we ask of them – and, crucially, on their ability to deliver a safe regime.

The Government’s commitment – prior to the recent general election – to recruit additional prison officers shows a recognition that the loss of 5,000 officers was not without consequence.

At the same time, the prison population has also been changing – with a shift towards a more violent mix, even where the offences putting them in prison might not at first glance be violent. Drug dealers may not be in prison for violence, but many will be familiar with and adept at the use of violence to further their own ends.

Couple these dynamics with the emergence of the new psychoactive substances (NPS) – like ‘spice’ and ‘black mamba’ – and the prison system has faced something of a perfect storm. Particularly alarming is the fact that NPS has a far more disruptive impact – resulting in aggression and unpredictable behaviour.

While we may never attain a prison entirely free of violence and safety risks – we must certainly aspire to ensure our prisons are the safest that they can be.

It’s why the Centre for Social Justice supports increased staffing, supports the overhaul of prison officer training and leadership and why we repeat our calls for drug scanners to be deployed across the prison estate – but we must also go further.

The safety of our prisons has a clear impact on the safety of our communities. Safe prisons can deliver meaningful and effective programmes, helping to reduce crime and improve lives. Safe prisons model an alternative to the often violent and dangerous criminal world. Safe prisons mean our fellow citizens – whether fathers, brothers, sons or others – do not fall prey to fellow prisoners (or any corrupt staff) intent on profiting from a misery built on vulnerability: whether through the sale of drugs or from Islamist or other extremist grooming.

The Government has to date – rightly – resisted the urge from some to engage in a knee-jerk wholesale depopulation of our prisons, leaving the root causes unaddressed.

To do so would be to undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system and to be reckless with public safety. But this should not prevent the use of sensible changes to practice – such as a fresh approach towards ROTL and addressing the issue of IPP prisoners – to both reduce crime and to help ease the pressure on hard-pressed prison regimes.

Prisons serve a hugely valuable purpose on behalf of the courts and public. If prison safety isn’t taken seriously then what’s also being undermined is public safety.

For that reason, as a society, we need to recognise that being tough on crime and the causes of crime means being no less demanding on prison safety and prison reform.

  • prison
  • prison reform
  • safety
  • Centre for social justice
  • Article Author

About Rory Geoghegan

Rory joined the Centre for Social Justice in 2017 as Head of Criminal Justice. Rory has previously worked in strategy at PwC and started working on criminal justice while at the Institute for Government and Policy Exchange authoring reports on policing, prisons and electronic monitoring. Rory has blended his criminal justice policy experience with …