Ministers have been accused of talking tough on crime in a bid to win votes while ignoring evidence-based solutions after the government announced a £100m crackdown on criminal activity behind bars.
Announcing the new funding on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would bring in tough airport-style security in jails, including X-ray scanners and metal detectors, to clamp down on the drugs and weapons, as well as technology to detect and block mobile phones.
He said: “We cannot allow our prisons to become factories for making bad people worse ... The public must see justice being done, punishment being served and feel protected.”
But charities and politicians said the announcement was a “hollow move” that failed to address the root causes of mounting problems in prisons, such as rising levels of self-harm and growing demand for drugs.
It comes amid a slew of moves by Mr Johnson to “come down hard on crime”, including plans to extend police stop and search powers and toughen up prison sentences, as well as create 10,000 more prison places – which campaigners said ignored evidence on the causes of crime.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that while tightening security was “all well and good”, the best way to reduce the supply of drugs into prisons was to reduce the demand for them.
She added: “This means ensuring that people in prison are occupied with purposeful activity, such as work, education, training and exercise. If ministers were serious about tackling crime in prison, they would be taking steps to reduce the number of people behind bars.”
Official figures show the number of drugs found in prisons has almost doubled in the last two years, while self-harm has risen to record levels for the seventh year in a row, with 7,968 incidents of self-injury in the year to March 2019 – at a rate of one every nine minutes.
The number of violent assaults across jails in England and Wales meanwhile increased by 16 per cent last year and 136 per cent since 2012, which campaigners have blamed largely on the loss of thousands of prison officers in recent years.
Richard Burgon MP, the shadow justice secretary, said the new measures “fell woefully short” of what was needed to make prisons safe when faced with a “prisons emergency caused by austerity”.
“The Tories have slashed the prisons budget by hundreds of millions of pounds and there are still thousands fewer prison officers than when they came to power,” he added.
“Boris Johnson should set out a detailed plan and provide proper funding to ensure that our prisons have the staffing and resources needed to focus on rehabilitation and reducing re-offending.”
Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Wera Hobhouse described the announcement as “yet another hollow move by Boris Johnson to seem tough on crime, but that yet again fails to tackle the causes of crime”.
“Boris Johnson can lock people up for longer or search them on their way in and out of prison, but none of this bravado will actually make our streets safer. Instead of just talking tough, it’s time [he] looked at the evidence in front of him,” she added.
Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party, accused the government of “curing the symptoms of crime without looking at the social and economic causes of it”, and of using law and order as a “smokescreen to distract the electorate from a crash-out Brexit”.
Justice secretary Robert Buckland argued that the funding would have a “transformative effect on prisons and give our hard-working officers the advantage as they tackle this scourge head-on”.
He added: “By disrupting those who continue to offend behind bars, we can keep our staff and other prisoners safe, and make sure that prisons truly fulfil their purpose of protecting the public.”
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