A crisis of safety and decency in our prisons

We need a long-term plan to improve our prisons, say MPs on the Justice Committee

Our report looks at the extent to which the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison Probation Service (HMPPS) have a plan in place to drive long-term, positive change. It considers investment in leadership, particularly in the role of the governor, as well as the oversight structures in place to drive progress.

We, the Justice Committee, have made a number of proposals to Government to reform the way the prison system is run.

Here are five of our key recommendations:

A clear, evidenced-based strategy is necessary to give governors the stability and confidence to make the changes necessary to improve prisons.

The Government recently set out a series of investment announcements for prisons. It committed £2.5 billion to building an additional 10,000 places, as well as £100 million to improve security. This investment is welcome, but must form part of a long-term, multi-year strategy, underpinned by a sustainable funding settlement.

Too often we have seen what might be called "policy by press notice" without a clear vision for the future of the prison system. There must also be a dual focus on improving safety and rehabilitative initiatives. We do not believe prisons will become less violent without proper investment in purposeful activity for prisoners.

Governors should have autonomy to run their prisons as they see best. Any devolution of responsibility to governors must be accompanied by the necessary training and support.

We broadly welcome the greater autonomy prison governors have had since 2016, but it is not clear what governors are accountable for. Any real devolution of responsibility to governors must be accompanied by necessary training and support, and we believe that more can be done in that respect. Ensuring a strong pipeline for recruitment of future governors is important to securing effective leadership across the prison estate.

Governors should have greater authority to commission minor repairs and employ staff and prisoners to undertake this work. 

We are concerned about the condition of prisons, particularly a backlog of maintenance work currently estimated at £900 million, beyond routine day-to-day maintenance. While new prison places are welcome, they do nothing to improve the condition of the current prison estate, much of which is in an appalling state of disrepair. 

Facilities management contracts do not work and we are also alarmed about how long it can take to get equipment, such as body scanners, into prisons. Further financial authority should be devolved to Governors to approve capital expenditure. We call on the Ministry to review its procurement processes to make them more efficient.

A whole-prison approach is absolutely vital to ensure a well performing prison.

Oversight structures for health and education services in prisons are complex, and there is a need for strong partnership working between governors and partner organisations. 

Measures by which the Ministry assesses prison performance are heavily skewed towards safety and security, and we welcome the Ministry's commitment to additional measures on purposeful activity and time spent out of cells.

However, there needs to be a whole-prison approach to measuring prison performance, including measures relating to health and education provision, and there should be appropriate training to support this.

There must be sufficient resource available to support prisons that are struggling, to ensure special measures result in improved performance.

Too often, prisons have been identified as needing extra support, but their performance has subsequently continued to decline. In the case of HMP Bristol, this resulted in the Chief Inspector of Prisons invoking the urgent notification protocol. There is little point in identifying poor performance and making recommendations to improve it if those recommendations are not adopted and the necessary support and resources to drive improvement not provided. 

The Government has two months to respond to our report.

Our report, Prison Governance, was published on 31st October 2019.

Detailed information from our inquiry can be found on our website.

If you’re interested in our work, you can find our more on the House of Commons Justice Committee website. You can also follow our work on Twitter. The Justice Committee is a cross-party committee of MPs that monitors the policy, administration and spending of the Ministry of Justice and its associated arms length bodies, including Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.