It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech from Melanie Onn, the powerful speech from my hon. Friend Simon Hoare and the deeply insightful speech from my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis. I am not an expert in prisons, but in 2015 there were riots at Chelmsford prison, and six members of staff ended up in hospital.
Chelmsford is an extremely busy category 3 prison that serves all of Essex. Some of the prison blocks date back to Victorian times. Indeed, as a child I remember watching “Porridge”, which was filmed in Chelmsford prison. When I was first elected a couple of years ago, the prison had not changed much since the 1970s. In fact, it was dire—severely over-crowded, many parts of the prison were in desperate need of repairs, staff levels were dangerously low, violent assaults were increasing and staff were struggling to get to grips with high levels of drug taking. The prison is in the centre of the city so it is easy to throw drugs over the walls and into the prison. The then governor was also extremely concerned about the high levels of mental health problems that he saw in the prisoners. He told me that he saw prison as a microcosm of the problems we see in society. Where we see drug use and mental health issues growing in wider society, they are magnified within the walls of prisons.
There was some good news. The prison recruited many new staff, up to the full complement, but many of them were young and inexperienced, and I was concerned about staff safety. The previous Minister—and I thank him for his work—kindly visited the prison with me and saw at first hand the need for repairs, and we heard from the governor and staff about the lack of ongoing support and mentoring for trainees. That Minister promised action.
When I last visited the prison a few months ago, I was pleased that several actions had been taken. I heard about new mentoring for younger members of staff, and there was a much more positive attitude. Lots of work had been done to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the prison, through mobile phone detectors, netting and better work with the police, including the use of dogs to patrol the outside perimeter. That was helping. I also saw that the state of the prison had improved. The overcrowding had been reduced. The prison was physically lighter and cleaner, and a more purposeful place. Indeed, many of the prisoners had been involved in refurbishing their own areas of the prison, with better lighting, fresh paint and new flooring. The place felt safer in many areas.
The new prison governor told me how passionate she is to try to break the revolving-door cycle and make sure that the people who come into prison have opportunities to learn skills. She started a strategy so that every prisoner, within three days of arriving in the prison, would do a course on food hygiene and safety, and be given a certificate with their new qualification. That also had the advantage that all prisoners could help to serve the food. It set them on a journey to learning, not just being locked up. She told me how she wanted more local companies, businesses and charities to be involved in the prison to help to bring skills, opportunities and training to the prisoners. She was also very pleased about the key worker scheme that was just starting to make sure that prisoners had someone they could confide in, who would talk them through their journey as they were about to leave prison, and make sure that they were helped in that situation.
The governor was also enormously concerned by the seven tragic deaths—every death is tragic—that had happened in the prison in the past couple of years, and the level of violence is still high. There have been improvements, but there is still a way to go.
I do not care who runs our prisons, whether it is the public or private sector, but I want to make sure that our prisons are well run. I am delighted that we have an excellent new prisons Minister and I ask him to come to Chelmsford prison—we are only an hour away—and see what more we can do. The previous prisons Minister promised and delivered changes, but we need more and I hope we can work together to deliver them.