If Liz Truss won't commit to cutting prisoner numbers, she must reverse staffing cuts
In a speech today, justice secretary Liz Truss will rule out any ‘reckless’ cuts to the prison population, slapping down a group of cross-party former ministers who called for the number of prisoners to be reduced by almost half.
While Truss will acknowledge that reducing the prison population is desirable, the government believes it must be for ‘the right reasons’. In other words, they’re afraid of being accused of leniency by the Daily Mail.
However, if Truss won’t cut numbers, she must commit to tackling the crisis some other way.
The prison population has surged by 140 per cent since 2000. Combined with staffing and funding cuts imposed since 2010, this has led to severe overcrowding, rising levels of violence and a record prisoner suicide rate.
In a report published today, the Howard League for Penal Reform collects prison staff’s views on the suicide crisis, and finds that staff shortages are a key factor. In recent years, the ratio of staff to prisoner had reduced from one to 2.9, to one to 5.3, meaning that remaining staff face overwork, stress and trauma as the situation in their prisons deteriorate.
According to Howard League chief executive Frances Cook:
“Overcrowding and understaffing in prisons is placing intolerable stress on staff and prisoners, and putting lives at risk.”
If Truss refuses to act on overcrowding, then she must respond to the staffing shortage with significantly increased investment. Her prisons and courts reform bill — to be published this month — presents the ideal opportunity.
However, the Tory record on this issue doesn’t offer much cause for hope. The party has appointed four justice secretaries since 2010 (Ken Clarke, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove and Truss) all of whom have proposed radically different policy proposals, causing upheaval in prisons around the country.
Leaders in the sector have called on Truss to break with this tradition of ‘whizzy political initiatives‘ and instead focus on creating a period of organisational stability.
This means adequate funding for prison staff, a willingness to listen to those on the ground and a sensible approach to prison population reduction — even if the Daily Mail doesn’t like it.
Last year, 119 prisoners took their own lives in English and Welsh prisons. The time for ‘tough on crime’ posturing is over.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter
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