Rocketing prison numbers, a shocking surge in assaults and deaths by suicide in custody, fewer staff, less constructive activity and unacceptably high reconviction rates are the flashing warning lights that Ministers must heed. To avert a crisis, they must check the bruising pace and scale of change in the justice system and pay prompt and proper attention to ensuring that we have decent, safe prisons. These must be balanced by effective alternatives to custody that command the confidence of the public and the courts.
When the Coalition Government came to power it promised small local prisons with a focus on work to prepare people for a responsible life on release. These training prisons do still exist. I visited HMP Coldingley last week with its impressive workshops and enough constructive work for all the 500 men it holds. But the emphasis currently is on economies of scale and super-sized jails like the planned 2,000 place titan in Wrexham.
Over 40% of prisoners are now held in institutions of 1,000 places or more and nearly two thirds of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded by the prison services' own definition. The rushed closure of 15 prisons, the transfer of a further two to the private sector and a 23% reduction in the number of prison officers employed in publicly run prisons since March 2010 have created a system stretched to the limit.
Respected for its disciplined approach and capacity to cope, the prison service is nonetheless taking a battering. Subject to a punishing benchmarking review and swingeing budget cuts, it faces a further drive to drag costs down to the £15,500 per place claimed by controversial new private sector establishment HMP Oakwood which holds 1,600 men. At the same time it is still having to deal with the tension and confusion caused by new mean and petty rules, including bans on parcels and books, following the review of incentives and earned privileges.
Local and European elections and new proposals to further inflate sentencing in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill currently before Parliament give a taste of the tough political rhetoric to come on crime and punishment. Yet public opinion polls show clearly that, to reduce crime and disorder, better supervision of young people by their parents, making amends to victims, supervised community service, mental healthcare and treatment for addictions all supersede prison.
An over-reliance on the use of imprisonment while slashing prison budgets, introducing harsher regimes and warehousing ever greater numbers overseen by fewer staff is no way to transform rehabilitation or indeed to value a civilized prison service . The Justice Secretary must act to put prison back where it belongs - as an important place of last resort in a balanced justice system.