I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the working conditions of prison officers.
Before I begin, I should explain that I have three prisons in my constituency, and I have raised regularly in this House issues that concern people working in them. As I have done on many other occasions, I pay tribute to the fantastic men and women who work in Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey. I am immensely proud of those dedicated, hard-working professionals, who work in an extremely challenging environment, facing the threat of violence almost daily with few complaints and a great deal of courage.
Violence is not the only issue that concerns prison staff—I intend to talk about numerous other issues later —but I will start by addressing it. Ministry of Justice figures show that violence in our prisons is at its highest level since records began. In the last quarter, there were 21,270 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, of which 3,029 were serious. At the same time, there were 8,429 assaults on prison staff, of which 864 were serious. In one quarter alone, about 4,000 serious assaults took place. Given the nature of what constitutes a serious assault, I suspect many were carried out using some form of offensive weapon.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 made it an offence to be in possession in prison of an offensive weapon, so I would have expected action to have been taken against those assailants. However, during 2015 and 2016, there were just 149 prosecutions, which hardly seems to be a deterrent to potential troublemakers. Such a low prosecution rate means that offenders know that if they attack a prison officer, they will probably get away with little more than a slapped wrist.
The lack of prosecutions against violent prisoners by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service has been a long-standing bugbear of mine. I have pointed out on a number of occasions—I make no apology for doing so again—that if a police officer is attacked while on duty, the full weight of the law rightly comes down on the attacker. However, if a prison officer is attacked while on duty, too often nothing happens. That cannot be right.
There are a number of reasons for the increase in violence, and I will touch on a few of them. There has been an increase in organised crime in prisons. I have heard stories of prisoners resorting to violence to avoid the risk of early release because their criminal activities in prison are so lucrative. There has also been an increase in the number of gangs in prisons: they are behind much of the organised crime, including the supply of drugs, which is big business.
The use of drugs in prisons is a huge problem, as I am sure we are all aware. A steady supply is smuggled in by visitors, corrupt prison staff and, increasingly, drones. My local prisons have introduced drone-exclusion zones, but they have no real means of enforcing the ban. The problem will be solved only by installing in every prison a system to detect, track and jam drones before they reach their destination.
Another concern is the increased incidence of prisoners smoking Spice and other harmful drugs in their cells. When prison officers enter the cell, they are at risk of harm from inhaling the lingering smoke. I know of a young prison officer in one of my prisons who was seriously affected by the inhalation of Spice fumes and had to be sent home because he was so ill. To counter that, gas masks should be made available to prison officers who enter cells in which it is suspected that an inmate has been smoking harmful substances, such as Spice. Stemming the flow of drugs is essential, and prison officers believe that the task of detecting drugs will be improved by the use of more sniffer dogs in prisons. I urge the Minister to consider that.
Drugs are not the only issue making the management of our prisons difficult. Mobile phones are also a big problem, as they are used to conduct much of the illicit business in prisons. People perhaps do not realise that mobile phones can be used to take photographs of prison officers, which can be sent to contacts outside the prison, who then intimidate them. The Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012 was supposed to help solve that problem by allowing phone signals to be blocked, but I understand that there have been difficulties implementing the Act. That is why I welcome the new Bill going through Parliament, with Government support, which will make it easier to prevent the use of mobile phones in prisons.
Combating prison violence can be problematic for a number of reasons, including the lack of control in some prisons. For instance, the POA alleges that prison managers sometimes fail to stick to the agreed regime management plans, which are put in place to set out work practices based on the number of officers available at any given time. The POA claims that some prison managers ignore RMPs because they fear the reaction of prisoners if they are not allowed out of their cells, even if there are not sufficient prison officers to supervise them. That leads to too many prisoners being unlocked without proper supervision. I should add that there is no evidence that that is happening in my three prisons.
That leads me nicely to another problem: the lack of prison officers. The Prison Service is in the process of recruiting more officers. Like the POA, I welcome that recruitment drive, but the influx of new recruits has presented its own challenges. Under benchmarking, the Prison Service lost thousands of experienced prison officers. They have been replaced with young, inexperienced officers, who are being asked to manage increasingly violent prisoners. We must do our bit by giving them the tools they need to do their job safety and effectively. One such tool is PAVA, which is similar to a pepper spray and is widely used in the police force. The Prison Service is currently piloting the PAVA in four prisons, and the results have been extremely positive.