LONDON: The current state of prisons is “unacceptable”, the justice secretary has said, as it emerged more than 200kg (400lb) of drugs and 13,000 mobile phones were found in jails last year. David Lidington, who took over as justice secretary after the election, acknowledged there is a raft of problems in the prison estate from high levels of contraband to poor security and self-harm among prisoners.
The justice secretary also admitted that prisons were not taking on the recommendations of inspection reports quickly enough. “I don’t dissent from the view of what the chief inspector of prisons has described as an unacceptable state of affairs. There is also too much self-harm in prisons which means we need to deliver better mental health care than we do at the moment,” Lidington told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. He insisted some of these issues stretched back to previous governments. But challenged about the cuts to 7,000 to frontline prison staff under the Conservatives over the past seven years, Lidington said: “We need to get numbers up I do not disagree with that, but we need to do other things too, get better at detecting illegal drugs and mobile phones and using some of our capital programmes to close antiquated Victorian prisons and have new prisons that are easier to manage.” The haul of contraband, which also included 7,000 mobile phone sim cards, illustrates the scale of the challenge facing prison officers who have had to cope with staff cuts and increased violence over recent years.
The prisons minister, Sam Gyimah, said the issues would not be resolved overnight but praised the efforts of staff to tackle the problems and highlighted the government’s recruitment drive to increase officer numbers. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice showed 225kg of drugs were recovered across the prison estate in England and Wales in 2016. The seizure of mobile phones and sim cards helped thwart efforts by inmates to continue plotting further crimes from behind bars, the ministry said. Officials said a £2m investment in technology to detect phones and 300 specialist dogs trained to find drugs had helped recover the illegal items.
But Gyimah acknowledged more needed to be done, including the recruitment of extra prison officers. He said: “I have been clear that the current levels of violence, drugs and mobile phones in our prisons is unacceptable. We have put in place a number of measures to help disrupt this illegal activity as it is an issue I am absolutely determined to resolve. “These figures highlight the determination of prison staff to disrupt this behaviour, whilst at the same time sending a clear message that we will push to prosecute anyone who involves themselves in this kind of activity. “The issues within our prisons will not be resolved overnight, but we must make progress in tackling these problems. Bringing in more frontline staff is an integral part of that. “The number of prison officers in post is on the rise, meaning we are on track to achieving the recruitment of 2,500 officers by 2018.”