The government is failing to care for people detained in England’s prisons, with too many prisoners living in “unsafe, unsanitary and outdated” conditions, MPs have discovered.
While violence and self-harm behind bars is at a “record high”, a quarter of prisoners have lived in overcrowded cells in the past two years, a report published by Parliament’s health and social care committee on Thursday revealed.
Meanwhile, a drastic drop in prison officer numbers in recent years - from almost 25,000 in 2010 to below 19,000 in 2017 - is limiting opportunities for prisoners to access health and care services, MPs said.
“A prison sentence is a deprivation of someone’s liberty - not a sentence to poorer health or healthcare,” said committee chair Sarah Wollaston, calling for care behind bars to “at least” match that given to the general public.
At present, prison conditions are “compounding a cycle of deprivation and health inequality”, the Tory MP added.
According to the report, poor health among prisoners has been exacerbated by the “increasingly widespread” use of psychoactive drugs, with the government and prison service “some way from having this under control”.
The results of the inquiry comes on the same day an inspection of HMP Wakefield revealed “unacceptable delays” at the prison in transferring inmates suffering from severe mental health problems to secure accommodation.
According to inspectors, the conditions they are held in before being transferred “clearly exacerbate” their illnesses.
As part of a series of recommendations designed to tackle conditions behind bars, MPs called for the board which oversees prisoner healthcare to identify the main differences in illness prevention and treatment between prisoners and the general population in a bid to reduce them.
A new “robust” approach to identifying the health needs of people in the criminal justice system should also be implemented, the committee said, while the government must name the date when there will be enough staff to allow the majority of prisoners to be unlocked for the recommended 10 hours a day.
The report has been welcomed by prison campaigners. Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League, said it is “impossible to lead a healthy lifestyle” behind bars under the current conditions.
“Prisoners cannot get good food. They rarely see daylight or breathe fresh air,” she said, adding that there are few opportunities to exercise and positive relationships are “stunted”.
“A change in culture is urgently needed to ensure that people in prison can live and work in a healthier environment,” Cook added.
A government spokesperson said it takes its duty of care to prisoners “extremely seriously” and has introduced a package of measures designed “to make our prisons safe, decent and better able to manage the often complex health needs of offenders”.
“This includes an extra £70 million to enhance the fabric of the estate and tackle the drugs which we know are fuelling violence, while up to 10,000 new prison places will provide conditions where healthcare can be delivered safely and efficiently,” they said.
“We have also recruited more than 3,500 new prison officers over the last two years and our new key worker scheme means prisoners will receive intensive personal support throughout their sentence.”
In response to the report on HMP Wakefield, Michael Spurr, chief executive of the Prison and Probation Service, said that the governor of the prison would use the recommendations to “further develop the establishment to meet the needs of its prisoners”.