On Tuesday Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, released his first annual report on the state of our prisons. He highlighted that:
"[Our prisons] have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. A large part of this violence is linked to the harm caused by new psychoactive substances (NPS) which are having a dramatic and destabilising effect in many of our prisons"
In response to Peter Clarke's comments, Liz Truss, the new justice secretary, said that she is to continue "at pace" with the "radical reform" initiated by her predecessor Michael Gove. This statement was well received by penal reformers, including VolteFace, who are currently working with a wide range of experts and stakeholders in our prison system to develop alternatives policies to reduce drug-related harms in our prisons.
Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform:
"We welcome the fact Peter Clarke has not pulled his punches on saying conditions have if anything got worse since Nick Hardwick's last report. Given that, we also welcome the tenor of the response from Liz Truss which appears to be saying that Gove's reforms will not disappear with the man himself and that she will redouble efforts to address these problems."
VolteFace's report on the changing and growing drug problem in our prisons could not be more timely and essential. The Chief Inspector drew attention to the lack of national strategy on NPS:
"While various aspects of the problem are being addressed through criminalising possession of NPS and the better use of testing and detention technologies, there is as yet no overall national strategy for dealing with the problem. NPS-fuelled instability has restricted the ability of staff to get prisoners safely to and from education, training and other activities. The implications of this for a reform programme based on enhancing the role of education in rehabilitation and resettlement are obvious."
Liz Truss and Sam Gyimah, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation, will be aware that this safety can only be achieved if effective policies are put in place to reduce drug-related harms in prisons. The incoming director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson said:
"This report shows the justice secretary where she must begin on prison reform. Making prisons safe for everyone who lives and works in them is the absolute priority and the necessary bedrock for longer term change."
VolteFace is taking a holistic approach, bringing together penal reformers with the wide network of drug policy experts that already work with VolteFace. The first in a series of events saw experts including former inmates, governors and penal reform experts presenting a range of alternatives to the current approaches.
As noted by Peter Clarke, despite the challenges posed by overcrowding and the rapidly changing dynamics of the drug problem:
"There are large numbers of dedicated, courageous, skillful and experienced staff who care deeply about the safety of those in custody, who want to improve the conditions of detention, and are focused on the rehabilitation of prisoners. Thanks to their efforts there are countless examples of good practice to be found in all places of detention."
Over the upcoming weeks and months VolteFace are travelling around the country and working with the people at the core of these good practices to develop alternative policies to improve prison safety. If the reforms are to be successful, it is essential that members of the prison service are supported with the expertise of those who already work to reduce drug-related harms in wider society.