MoJ lauds progress with ‘problem jails’ project
Minister says new scanners earmarked for introduction at 10 jails could have a positive impact in “keeping staff honest" amid smuggling concerns
Prisons minister Rory Stewart. Photo: PA
The Ministry of Justice has hailed its progress with a project to reduce violence levels and drug consumption at 10 of the nation’s “most challenging” prisons.
But prisons minister Rory Stewart has accepted that criminals applying for jobs to oversee the smuggling of drugs and other banned items to inmates has been part of the problem, and that “airport-style security” for both staff and prisoners is the solution.
In an update on the 10 Prisons Project, Stewart said that a new x-ray body scanner had been installed at one of the institutions – HMP Leeds, and that scanners would be installed in the other nine jails in the months to come.
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The MoJ said the scanners would “help break the cycle of violence that is fuelled by drugs and other illegal items” and allow staff to search offenders on an intelligence-led basis for drugs and other contraband concealed inside their bodies.
“Evidence found on prisoners can be used to support disciplinary action or criminal prosecution,” it added.
Stewart launched the 10 Prisons Project in August after a run of negative prison stories – including a damning annual report from chief inspector of prisons Peter Clark that laid some of the blame on staffing cuts over the previous five years. The minister pledged to resign from his job in a year if progress in reducing violence levels and drug use had not been made with the £10m programme.
In his update, Stewart insisted progress was being made with the programme, which brings together a raft of measures including equipment that can monitor mail for the presence of psychoactive substances, metal-detecting wands, new specialist staff and more dog handlers.
However, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme reported anecdotal evidence from a senior police officer who said there was a strong suspicion that organised criminals were infiltrating the staff side of prisons to aid the supply of drugs into jails.
Thames Valley Police assistant chief constable Jason Hogg, who leads on leads on prison intelligence for the National Police Chiefs Council, said clues included examples of staff who began bringing illegal items into prisons promptly after being appointed.
“Whether it’s a prison officer or a maintenance worker, the move towards supplying contraband can be quite quick,” he said.
“It’s sometimes not the experienced staff, it can be staff who’ve been working in the prison for a relatively short period of time.”
Stewart told the Today programme that there was “always a risk” that members of drug-dealing gangs would try to secure jobs in prisons as a way to smuggle in contraband. But he insisted the problem was not widespread.
“The vast majority of our prison officers are incredibly dedicated public servants, but you will occasionally have people who are tempted into this,” he said.
Stewart said the drug problem in prisons was much worse than it had been 10 years ago and pointed to the extremely potent synthetic cannabinoid “spice” as a problem that was not in the secure establishment then.
He said the new scanners earmarked for introduction at the 10 Prisons Project jails could have a positive impact in “keeping staff honest” in addition to other benefits.
“If you can regularly search staff, which is why I am pushing for airport-style security for everybody going in and out of that prison every day, it reduces the chance of somebody being put under pressure by a criminal gang,” he said.
“They will be able to effectively turn around and say ‘I can’t do it for you because I’m searched so aggressively at the door, I can’t get the stuff in’.”
In July, Clark pointed to a “dramatic” rise in violence and self-harm in prisons in England and Wales over the past five years, amid some of the “most disturbing prison conditions” his team had ever seen.
On the same day HM Prisons Inspectorate published a report on HMP Wandsworth in south London, which flagged a litany of concerns. It said there was a “long-standing culture of not recording or analysing data to understand what was happening and to drive improvement” at the jail and “an obvious gap between the intentions of senior managers and what was actually happening on the wings”.
Among its findings was that an x-ray scanner intended to prevent contraband being brought into the prison had stopped being used for reasons that were unclear. Wandsworth is not one of the 10 Prisons Project jails.
In September, it was announced that HM Prison and Probation Service chief executive Michael Spurr would be stepping down from his role after MoJ perm sec Richard Heaton had decided it was time for a change of leadership.
Candidates to replace Spurr are due to be interviewed this month, while Heaton – who was knighted in the New Year Honours – has set out plans for a shake-up to streamline leadership at HMPPS, including the creation of two new director general roles.
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