Professor Nick Hardwick told MPs that organised crime had flourished in jails where there is a shortage of long-serving staff, suggesting an “alternative structure” had developed in which prisoners had too great an influence in some establishments.
“I’m quite sure that in some prisons the absence of experienced staff has left a vacuum that organised crime has filled,” he said.
“If you want to have a profitable trade in drugs, you need some rules and structures by which that trade operates. There’s a lot of money at stake. People need to pay – you can’t go to the small claims court if they’re not.
“What’s certainly happened in some prisons is an alternative structure has developed where prisoners are running too much of what is happening.
“Once established, that becomes very difficult to break down.”
Professor Hardwick did not single out specific prisons, but his remarks to the Commons Justice Committee chime with warnings raised in recent reports published by his successor as chief inspector, Peter Clarke.
An assessment of HMP Birmingham warned violent prisoners could act with “near impunity” and blatant use of illegal substances went largely unchallenged amid a “looming lack of control”.
A report on HMP Bedford found inmates had effectively taken control at the violent, overcrowded and vermin-infested jail.
Authorities estimate there are around 6,500 prisoners with links to organised crime in England and Wales.
The government has announced a string of measures aimed at loosening the grip of gangs and stopping criminal kingpins from continuing their activities from behind bars.
In the latest step, announced earlier this month by the justice secretary, David Gauke, a new specialist unit will identify and freeze bank accounts linked to organised crime.
Professor Hardwick also warned that prisons are struggling to retain staff amid surging levels of violence, telling the committee: “You get punched. Why would you turn up to work with these levels of violence?
“Secondly ... you can earn more money in comparable or less stressful jobs close by.”
It comes after The Independent revealed a third of prison officers who leave the service quit within a year of starting, citing chaos in the wings, lack of respect from management, and absence of support.
Press agencies contributed to this report
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