Cuts to prison budgets come at a shocking human cost


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The Independent Online

Chris Grayling arrived at the Ministry of Justice determined to shake up an overstretched and underperforming prison system. Part of his motivation was financial. Prisons are feeling the sharp edge of austerity measures and have suffered budget cuts of 24 per cent – equivalent to £900m – over the lifetime of the Coalition. In other words, close to £2,000 less is being spent on individual offenders than five years ago.

As the Commons Justice Select Committee argues today, it is impossible to cut so deeply without having a damaging impact on standards and safety behind bars. The steadily growing rates of suicide, self-harm and assaults – as well as the disclosure that “hit squads” of specialist officers are being deployed more regularly to calm tensions in jails – are ample proof of the connection between funding and operational viability.

Mr Grayling’s response to the relentless squeeze has been to champion a “benchmarking” programme under which the budgets of public-sector prisons are driven down to match their private-sector counterparts. He has also supported a building scheme to replace crumbling Victorian jails with lower-cost modern equivalents, which will see a 2,100-inmate prison open in 2017 in Wrexham. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that rehabilitation will be all the harder to achieve in a vast penal warehouse designed to achieve economies of scale.

Mr Grayling has also betrayed his susceptibility to provocative headlines, suggesting that prison regimes are too lax by toughening the rules on the temporary release of inmates, on earning privileges, and even on when “lights out” happens – none of which steps are conducive to inmates’ wellbeing. The Justice Secretary has repeatedly spoken of his determination to cut reoffending levels. But it appears that his legacy will be to leave prisons in an even worse state than he found them.