Ministers have created absolute crisis in prisons, says governors' chief

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Ministers were today accused of plunging jails into an “absolute crisis” as prison governors warned that a “toxic mix” of rising violence and staff shortages threatens to bring disorder and rioting.

In an outspoken attack, the president of the Prison Governors’ Association, Andrea Albutt, said she was speaking out about the “unacceptable” situation because of her grave concern about the “recent increase in concerted indiscipline” in prisons. 

There have been violent disturbances in prisons in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire this week and a surge in assaults carried out by inmates on fellow prisoners and staff over recent months.

Ms Albutt said she feared that the situation would worsen as the summer peak leave period strained staffing. She said she was “devastated” by the “complete decline” of the prison service. 

“It’s an absolute crisis. The regime that we are giving prisoners is unacceptable,” she told the Standard. “Violence is increasing. The last figures showed violence at a record high.

“We are dealing with some of the most damaged people in society, but prison policy is being set by generalist civil servants who have never set foot in a prison and probably never spoken to an offender.

“This is madness. It’s soul-destroying. It’s terrible. We are a modern society yet we can’t run decent prisons.”

Ms Albutt said the problems were the result of severe staff shortages and spending cuts, coupled with “perverse” changes to the way that Ministry of Justice ran prisons. 

The problems were being exacerbated by the recruitment of “unsuitable people” to boost prison officer numbers and “poor quality” training. Many were quitting as a result. 

Ms Albutt added that conditions were so dire that it was often impossible to rehabilitate inmates. This meant that prisoners, including gang and knife offenders in London, would be more likely to reoffend after their release.

In an earlier bulletin sent to her fellow governors, she also expressed concern that the recent disorder at The Mount prison in Hertfordshire and Erlestoke in Wiltshire could be followed by more disturbances in the coming weeks.

She said: “The recent increase in concerted indiscipline is of grave concern. The rise in our population … has left us with virtually no headroom in prison spaces.

“The instability we are seeing is clearly linked to a poor regime. This toxic mix does not have a quick fix and the future looks like more of the same.

“We know many prisons are in crisis … it can’t be dressed up in any other way.”

Ms Albutt said the loss of some 7,000 prison officers since 2010 was at the root of the problems and that although ministers have promised to restore 2,500 posts, the new challenges of pyschoactive drugs such as Spice and increasingly complex young offenders meant that more were needed.

She added: “The Government talks about it as if it’s not their fault but it was government policy under Cameron and Grayling that took the funding out.

“The silence from the new secretary of state is deafening and the prisons minister says he’s unable to meet us until mid-October. It’s unacceptable and their response today has been crass.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We know that our prisons have faced a number of long-standing challenges, which is why we have taken immediate action to boost prison officer numbers and have created Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. 

“We need to create calm and ordered environments to help ensure effective rehabilitation, and we continue to work closely with the unions and all staff to help achieve these vital reforms and make prisons places of safety and reform.”@martinbentham

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