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Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Robertson; it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I highly congratulate Kenny MacAskill on stepping in to lead the debate. I rise as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group, and I should also mention the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance and its “Safe Inside Prisons” charter. I thank all staff in prisons. They are, in many cases, by the nature of their work, invisible and unheard heroes, which we should bear in mind.
Staff in prisons will be very aware of the criteria against which they are held to account by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. If safety is one of the four healthy prison tests at inspection, surely health and safety in prisons must be on every agenda all the time. Whether in the private or public estate—no matter who employs the member of staff—safety is a priority.
Safety of course means freedom from violence and from the threat of violence, and must apply equally to everyone in the prison estate. It is therefore a matter of surprise to me that inspection reports reference prisoner-on-prisoner violence specifically, while violence towards staff is much less of a priority. Yes, the purpose of a prison inspection is to assess the experience of prisoners, but the very nature of the prison estate means that the health and safety of prison staff is intrinsically bound to the health and safety of prisoners.
To me, it is self-evident that a workplace that sets so low a priority for its staff’s welfare as to fail to record every incident of violence against them will inevitably also fail on the welfare of prisoners. The culture of fear and reluctance around the reporting of violent incidents needs to be challenged and radically changed. If present priorities effectively reward under-reporting, every step must be taken to ensure that violence against all staff is recorded and promptly acted on. Currently, the system appears to contain perverse incentives that actively encourage under-reporting.
If the targets against which prison management is answerable are producing such results—effectively creating an environment in which violence against staff is ignored—those targets or contractual requirements must be changed —they are otherwise unfit for purpose. Raising the priority of staff safety will require a culture of change at all levels. The regular use of body-worn cameras, for example, would aid in the collection of evidence. To bring about their intended effect, challenge, support and intervention plans need to be rigorous, sufficiently challenging for violent prisoners and supportive enough of prisoners who are victims of violence.
There must be a record of every act of violence against any member of staff employed in a prison, as well as meaningful consequences for prisoners who commit such violence. Those consequences could come through judicial process or internal prison procedures. Attacks on staff can no longer be excused as collateral damage in the hidden theatre of violence staged behind high walls across England and Wales.
HMP Berwyn is the newest facility in the prison estate, having opened three years ago, and the second largest prison in Europe, with capacity for 2,100 prisoners —there are about 1,800 there at present. I will read from the exit interview of a member of staff who left last month after working there for just over two years—the attrition rate is between 10% and 14%. I will try to be as brief as possible, and will leave out the sections that I could not corroborate with others—I have checked what I am about to read out. He said:
“Most importantly the staff and friends who I have worked alongside have made the job for me. They are the reason us staff come in every day, and I will always thank the place for letting me meet these people. I have made friends for life and also met a partner within the service, who is fantastic and has been brilliant and supportive, especially after I was recently assaulted on Christmas day at HMP Berwyn.
I feel at HMP Berwyn everything always seems to be about the prisoners. So long as the regime is running, nothing else matters. Band 3 officers are not listened to, staff safety is not a priority and is constantly compromised and undermined. Recently I was assaulted with hot water on 25/12/2019 on Alwen B Uppers by a prisoner. This has been the final nail in the coffin for me. I was almost left blinded in my left eye and during my time trying to recover occupational health had been in touch at the start of January with me and have offered support and a meeting on the 25/02/2020, two months after the incident, by which point I will have left HMP Berwyn, so this is no use whatsoever.
More importantly, I called North Wales Police in the new year of 2020 to discover they had no record whatsoever that I had been assaulted or taken into A&E due to an assault, and I had to chase up the police, crime number, security and police liaison officers to make sure it was reported correctly, and find that the prisoner was not taken to segregation immediately, and the paperwork that was meant to reach the police liaison officer was lying around on a desk somewhere. Surely this should not be the case when I myself was blind in one eye, at this time recovering at home, feeling helpless.”
I will move ahead. Talking about his own work, this man said:
“I was always on time, I worked late, I tried to be proactive and I worked through lunch, yet some people would stroll in 20 minutes late (weekends and mornings), sit in the office, let prisoners get away with basic things…hide within the jail, but would never be pulled up or even spoken to. I made myself ill giving my all to my unit. Yet you have people doing the bare minimum and getting away with it, and this used to drive me crazy.
Also we are trying to tackle drink and drugs as a priority within the jail, yet you clearly have staff taking drugs at weekends and coming into work under the influence. Yet nothing is ever said or done in regards to this. Also, staff who have been given criminal convictions during their employment have been allowed to stay in their jobs.”
I will move ahead again to “evidence handling”, and we must remember that this is a man who has been assaulted during his work:
“Evidence handling is poor. Nothing is ever bagged or tagged correctly. Extra training, I feel, needs to be provided on this. I was assaulted on Christmas day, yet my clothing was not taken from me. This could have been vital evidence. We are always short on prison officer numbers yet we continue to take more prisoners into the jail, and compromise staff safety, and try to make do, rather than lock wings down. We put people onto wings or on key working shift to unlock, then, when it comes to feeding, we are scraping around, looking for a third member of staff rather than just shutting a wing down.
I am reluctant to complete this form, as many times we as officers speak up and nothing ever gets changed. I doubt this form will even get the chance to see the number one governor or senior management team or be looked at, due to negativity. But I can with my hand on heart say I gave my all, 100% all the time…
I wear my heart on my sleeve and I take pride in my work, and this can be backed up by anyone you want to ask in the jail. Yet I will make these points to try and help you retain staff, as I can assure you many others are close to leaving and a high percentage of your prison officers (very good ones at that) are currently seeking employment elsewhere and will leave if things do not change.”
The last few things that this man says are really important:
“I really want to see HMP Berwyn do well and be a good place to work, so I have therefore let it all out and given my honest opinions and hope these will be considered and taken into account. I loved working with many people within HMP Berwyn, and you have some great characters, team players and personalities.”
But those people need support.
I have a few specific asks; some of them relate to HMP Berwyn, but I think they are relevant to other prisons too. Can the Minister confirm whether an unused wing in Berwyn might be put into use as an isolation ward to deal with the covid-19 crisis? If that is the case, it could be of support to other prisons. Also, can he confirm that all necessary personal protective equipment and training for staff is being provided?
In these circumstances, and considering the size of the prison, can the Minister commit to reviewing the merits of phasing out the use of double cells at Berwyn, and making it a single-cell prison, as I understand that is what is happening with the new private prisons that are being developed? There is capacity, with the number of prisoners presently there; it will certainly be a lot easier than when we go to full capacity. If this change on single cells could be made, it would facilitate many aspects of the work for prison officers.
I have a question on covid-19; I do not know if it has been asked yet. We have had a request from the unions and from the teaching staff—staff who are not directly employed staff working in prisons. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be no penalties by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service for non-delivery of teaching hours during education shutdown?
Finally, may I reiterate the call that the Minister’s Department adopts the “Safe Inside Prisons” charter, in the spirit of tripartite working between employers, unions and the Health and Safety Executive? Diolch yn fawr iawn.