The government has been embroiled in an extraordinary war of words over “mismanagement” of prisons in England and Wales.
Prison Governors Association president Andrea Albutt, following recent violence at prisons in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire, said the unrest was causing “grave concern” – adding that governors faced “unacceptable stress and anxiety”.
Her top target was former Justice Secretary Liz Truss who in a shake-up put career civil servants in charge of prisons policy to implement cuts of over 7,000 prison officers.
Ms Albutt said her members had seen “nothing tangible” from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ease population pressures in prison, and the burden on staff. She said recruitment remained in a “critical” condition, training was “poor” and “unsuitable people” were being selected.
Ms Albutt said the government had not been receptive to talking to governors. Current Justice Secretary David Lidington’s silence had been “deafening” and prisons minister Sam Gyimah could not meet them until October. Without sufficient staffing, prisons could only “hold and control” prisoners, not deliver quality rehabilitative regimes, she added.
Her Association has traditionally been moderate, but reticence has been ditched after recent data showed a rise in violence in prisons, with 26,643 assaults in the year to March 2017 – 20% more than the previous year. Of those, a record 7,159 were attacks on staff – equivalent to 20 every day.
Ms Albutt described the government’s decision earlier this year, to separate operational control of the prison system from responsibility for policy, as “madness”.
Conservative MP Bob Neill, chairman of the Commons Justice Select Committee, said that the main was a “serious disconnection” and growing lack of confidence between “the top brass” of the Prison Service and the “operational people on the ground”, including governors.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said officer numbers had been slashed while overcrowding had risen.
“Prisoners are not being rehabilitated and this is putting the public at risk,” he said, adding that only a Labour government would provide the investment, staff and attention needed to end the crisis.
John Podmore, a former governor of Brixton, Belmarsh and Swaleside prisons, said he had never known rioting to be so frequent and long-lasting, and called for an independent public inquiry. The prison system was “in a mess” and there had been a “fundamental breakdown” in relations between staff and prisoners, he said.
An MoJ spokesman said Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) – which replaced the National Offender Management Service – would “help to create a distinct, professionalised frontline service”.