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CSJ - Only safe prisons can turn rehabilitation rhetoric into reality

Last week saw the Prime Minister appoint David Lidington as the new Secretary of State for Justice – following a general election campaign in which all three major parties championed the need for more rehabilitation within our prisons.

But to deliver that vision requires a focus on prison safety. The two most recent inspection reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons described “significant concerns” about “the safety of the prison” at HMP Pentonville, echoing similar concerns for HMP Brixton which it described as “awash with drugs, undermining everything” - including rehabilitation.

The Government’s commitment to build 10,000 new-for-old prison cells will go some of the way to remedying the challenges that face some of our oldest prisons, but a new prison isn’t automatically a safe prison.

More progress is needed on tackling the problem of drugs in prison. The Government’s adoption of the CSJ’s major policy recommendation to install drug scanners to detect and deter the smuggling of drugs by prisoners, visitors and staff appears to have stalled in implementation. The new Justice Secretary should revisit this as a priority.

Meanwhile, since 2010, some 5,000 band 3-4 prison officers have been lost, representing one quarter of the frontline operational officers in prisons. This too has had an impact on safety and the quality and quantity of purposeful and rehabilitative activity in our prisons.

It’s also why we support the Government’s commitment to recruit more prison officers and the manifesto pledge, another CSJ recommendation, to overhaul prison officer training.

Many of our Alliance of poverty-fighting charities involved in criminal justice echo these points – prison safety is a vital prerequisite for delivering their life-improving programmes to maximum effect.

Safety in our prisons is also vital to help combat extremism both within and beyond the prison gates.  The Prime Minister’s declaration that “enough is enough” in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack should serve as a call to better protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged who are at risk of radicalisation in our prisons.

Safe prisons are worth fighting for. Safe prisons can deliver a regime of education, employment and rehabilitation. Safe prisons protect the most vulnerable from the damaging effects of drugs and ‘spice’ and from the predation of extremists offering ‘protection’. Safe prisons have the best chance of changing lives and cutting crime.

So, if our politicians wish to see rehabilitation translated from rhetoric into reality, they must not shy away from their commitments to make prisons places of safety – where the root causes behind crime and poverty might, at last, be tackled.

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