RORY STEWART: ‘I’LL RESIGN IF PRISON VIOLENCE DOESN’T IMPROVE’
Article originally published in The Guardian by Erwin James on 23 January 2019.
By any measure our prisons are in a state of crisis. Last year, there were almost 50,000 incidents of self-harm among the 82,500 prisoners in England and Wales. Drug-fuelled violence is at an all-time high, with more than 32,500 assaults, 10,000 of which were against staff. At least 87 prisoners took their own lives, five were murdered and more than 300 died of ill-health or natural causes. The scale of the problem is not lost on the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, who has vowed to resign if he doesn’t achieve improvements.
One of the major reasons that there is so much violence is that there are too many drugs, and one of the reasons for that is insufficient perimeter security, says Stewart. He intends to make it more difficult for criminals to get drugs into prisons. Stewart is focusing on 10 of the worst-performing prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, Leeds and Nottingham, which he dubs his “ 10-prison project”. They have been given an extra budget of £40m to improve safety and tackle drug-taking.
“We have to move to airport-style security, where every single prison officer, every member of staff goes through an airport-style security check every day. Anyone, in fact, who enters a prison, including me.” Why? Stewart says this would ensure contraband is picked up, but more importantly, that staff who could come under pressure from a criminal, “sometimes it’s not that they themselves are criminals, but they’re being blackmailed, or their family is being threatened”, can then say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it because they are searching me every single day.” He also wants staff lockers to be outside the prison gates. “A single transparent bag, going through an x-ray scanner is all they should be able to take in. We should have a clear expectation that they put on their uniforms before going in – all of that needs to happen.”
But surely the obvious way to reduce violence would be to reduce prison numbers, particularly among those serving short sentences who make up the highest number of reoffenders? Stewart implies that he would like to scrap sentences of less than three months. “I’ve no doubt that the wrong kind of short sentence can damage the individual and ultimately damage the public because it can lead to more reoffending,” he says. It is “long enough to damage the person and not long enough to change their life”.