Saturday, 20 August 2011
Riots: Fears Over Violence As Prison Population Swells To Record Level
Police officers stand in front of a prison van. Prison chiefs appear to be concerned about the volatility of the jail population after the incarceration of hundreds of rioters.
Prison service chiefs have sounded the alarm over potential unrest and violence in overcrowded jails in England and Wales as hundreds of rioters have swelled the prison population to a record level.
The Prison Service admitted on Friday that they are "closely monitoring the estate for any potential unrest" after the prison population broke through the 86,000 mark for the first time.
The governors of all jails in England and Wales were earlier this week warned by the Prison Service's "gold commander", who was running the emergency response to the riots, to take steps to ensure the safety of those involved in public disorder who had been remanded in custody for the first time in their lives, it emerged on Friday.
"This morning there has been a nasty three person alleged assault. All three victims were public disorder remands, two currently in hospital," Andrew Cross, the Prison Service's deputy director of operations who was acting as gold commander, reported in the email sent out on Monday.
A separate email to governors from the Prison Service's national operations group asks them to "watch the mood and atmosphere in your prison" in the aftermath of the alleged assault on three people, which it says took place at Cookham Wood young offenders institution at Borstal in Kent.
The internal justice ministry emails indicate that while prison chiefs are fairly confident that they can provide sufficient cells to cope with the rocketing prison population, they have more immediate concerns about the volatility of the jail population.
They appear particularly concerned that existing inmates, perhaps from rival gangs, will attack some unwary, unconvicted riot defendants who have never been in trouble before and have little idea of how to safely navigate the gang-hardened culture inside some jails.
The email sent to all governors by Cross said: "Over the past few days there has been emerging intelligence regarding the consequences of receiving public disorder remands/offenders."
Cross said individual prisons were responding to this intelligence: "The consideration that has been gathering pace is the safety of remands/offenders and is not limited to the young offenders/young persons estate but also includes adult male and female offenders."
He told governors that when they were dealing with riot defendants or offenders it was important they put thought into their background in terms of their experience of a custodial setting.
"Whilst the induction process ensures that remands/offenders are aware of the risks of stating where they live, what gang they may be in, what team they may support or faith they may be, it is worth ensuring that reception staff give a verbal brief and assess risk where they remand first time in custody people."
A Prison Service spokeswoman said the emails were reminding governors to ensure that, despite the increased arrivals to prison, all reception procedures were thoroughly followed: "It is entirely appropriate to remind governors of the need to make proper assessments of the risks that apply to certain prisoners and the steps they should take to manage such risks."
She added that officials at Cookham Wood were clear "that this incident was not riot related".
But Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation union, said the memos showed real concerns about the danger to people who were being remanded in custody for the first-time on riot related charges: "They could be at risk of self-harm or of assault by other prisoners because of resentment about their actions or their notoriety."
On Friday, David Cameron appeared to moderate his hardline-approach to sentencing the rioters during the BBC's Test Match Special, on which he made a guest appearance while watching the cricket.
He said it was right the courts should pass exemplary sentences to demonstrate what had happened was wrong but he also said that those convicted deserved a second chance once they had served their punishment: "I'm an optimist. I'm a believer in giving people second chances in life. I don't think anyone is totally lost," he said. "Even these people that are going to prison – and they are getting some pretty hefty prison sentences – there is still a chance for them to rebuild their lives."
The internal memos were disclosed after the prison population in England and Wales hit a record high of 86,654 following the courts' decision to remand hundreds charged with rioting and looting in custody.
The Ministry of Justice said the prison population had risen by 723 over the past week. Officials are making contingency plans to accelerate the opening of new prison buildings and bring mothballed accommodation back into use.
There are currently only 1,439 spare, usable places left in the jail system, but prison chiefs say they remain confident they have enough to cope with those being imprisoned by the courts in relation to the recent riots.
"We are developing contingencies to increase usable capacity should further pressure be placed on the prison estate," the Prison Service said.
It is thought the plans include opening accommodation at the new Isis prison next to Belmarsh in south-east London earlier than expected, and bringing back into use a wing at Lewes prison, East Sussex, which had been closed for refurbishment.
The Prison Service said it had no plans to reverse the decision to close two prisons – Latchmere House in London, and Brockhill in Redditch – next month.
But Geoff Dobson, the deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the rapid increase in prison numbers meant that some parts of the system were "becoming human warehouses, doing little more than banging people up in overcrowded conditions, with regimes that are hard pressed to offer any employment or education. The likelihood is that for some first time offenders that will provide a fast-track to a criminal career."