General Secretary

October 2013 | 15.10.2013

Prisons are becoming even more dangerous to work in

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The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice released a statement on prison capacity on Wednesday 4 September 2013. The Government has a policy to modernise the prison estate in which they determine the replacement of accommodation which, in their words, are old, inefficient or has limited long-term strategic value with newer, more affordable accommodation which improves the resettlement of prisoners and prevents reoffending.

In January 2013 the Secretary of State announced a new-build prison and as part of the Spending Review in June 2013, secured a £250 million investment for it to be built in North Wales. The site has now been secured (subject to planning permission) on the former Firestone site in Wrexham. This prison will not be fully operational until late 2017. No announcement was made as to who will run it. The POA will continue to campaign that it is run by the public sector.

Rapid closure programme

During his announcement, the Secretary of State stated that he has asked his officials to come up with plans that would see the existing Feltham Young Offenders site replaced with a large new adult prison and a new, youth facility on adjoining sites in West London. He believes he will save around £30 million per annum by closing HMP Blundeston, HMP Dorchester, HMP Northallerton and HMP/YOI Reading. In addition, they will convert HMP Verne to an immigration removal centre, and begin discussions with the Duchy of Cornwall about the future of HMP Dartmoor, although they admit the lease has a long notice period and nothing will happen immediately. Announcements were also made in relation to HMP Downview ceasing to hold female prisoners and instead will hold male prisoners and HM YOI Warren Hill will stop holding young offenders and will also change to hold adult male prisoners. All these changes will occur before the end of the financial year with the exception of Feltham and Dartmoor.

The rapid closure programme in my view is both dangerous and ill thought out; it could place staff, prisoners and the public in danger. There is absolutely no cohesive joined-up thinking in relation to these policies. Let us examine the facts:

Since May 2010 the prison population has only fallen by just over 700 prisoners; so much for the much heralded publicity into the rehabilitation revolution. At the same time, according to a recent Parliamentary question on prison service staffing, the operational staffing level from 31 May 2010 until 30 April 2013 has fallen by 4,750 members of staff in public sector prisons.

Of that amount, 2,490 prison officer grades have fallen yet the amount of prisoners remains in excess of 84,000 and with less prison space available, our prisons are becoming more overcrowded.

Prison officers are demoralised

Some would say this is a recipe for disaster. In fact the Prison Reform Trust has highlighted its concerns in many reports along with the Howard League, and the Independent Monitoring Board at Wormwood Scrubs. The POA also share those concerns about overcrowding, cuts to staff, prison closure programme, redundancy and cuts to pensions and pay, yet this Coalition Government plough on with their cuts agenda, oblivious to the warnings and constructive argument from those that actually know what they are talking about.

I believe this Government are obsessed by cuts and will stop at nothing within the Prison Service and indeed the Criminal Justice System until something goes drastically wrong. The Justice Secretary is ignoring reports from the past, such as
Lord Justice Woolf’s report in relation to overcrowding and the Certified Normal Accommodation, and indeed, the lessons and outcome from the tragic death of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham.

Ignore the past at your peril but up and down the country, prison officers are demoralised because they are finding cuts unsustainable and prisons are becoming a more dangerous place to work for all POA members.

POA to lobby Parliament

There needs to be an urgent debate before something goes drastically wrong within the Criminal Justice System and indeed our prison service. The POA will be holding a lobby of Parliament on 20 November 2013 in respect of prison closures and we will be informing Members of Parliament as to the dangers of the present policy of cuts mixed with prison closures.

It cannot be safe or decent for prisoners to share a cell that is designed for one occupant. How on earth can prison officers do the demanding job under these unprecedented stresses in environments that no other worker in Great Britain would put up with? It appears the policy of ‘out of sight out of mind’ is the appetite of this Government in respect of our prisons. We urge sensible dialogue on this before it is too late.

Steve Gillan
General Secretary