This week, the Government's Prisons and Courts bill starts its committee stage. There will be line by line scrutiny of the new legislation where opposition and backbench MPs set out their arguments for new clauses and amendments.
In the second reading of the bill, I outlined that whilst it did include some positive steps, its aspirations would amount to nothing unless we comprehensively get to grips with overcrowding and violence in prisons.
Overcrowding is as much about the ratios of prison officers to prisoners, as it is about physical capacity to house people. Overcrowding is a problem in 69% of our Prisons - 80 out of 116 establishments.
It's no wonder that we are experiencing problems. The Conservatives have closed 18 prisons since 2010, and stripped 7,000 prison officers out of the system at a time when the prison population is only going up. The number serving custodial sentences has risen from 43,000 in 1993 to just over 84,000 in 2016. So why did we ever get to a place where we were putting that much pressure on the system?
I visited my nearest Prison, HMP Leeds in Armley which is the most overcrowded prison in the country, to meet officers and discuss the realities of the challenges they face. The Prison Reform Trust found that HMP Leeds was built to accommodate 669 men but, as of October 2016, it held 1,145. It’s populated at 171% its intended capacity.
One of the things that was clear from speaking to officers was that they are passionate about the work they do. They are committed to supporting and reforming inmates and find it demoralising that in the current climate, there are so few prison officers that they are only able to do the very basics.
There are too few officers to safely run ‘regimes’ which are the programmes of activity which take in trade skills, education, healthcare and exercise and which are instrumental in seeking to reform inmates and equip them for life on the outside. In addition officers told me how the best means of keeping themselves safe is when they have the time to get to know a prisoner and this is becoming increasingly difficult.
So following my work on protecting emergency service workers, particularly police officers, from assaults, I have turned my attention to using this bill to ensure that Prison officers get the same protections.
The Prison Officers Association produced a report called ‘Prison Violence – How bad does it have to get’ which gives details of some of the most shocking attacks on officers.
In order to make sure that the toughest deterrents are in place to keep prison officers safe, I am calling on the Government to introduce a stand-alone offence of assaulting a prison officer. This would give prison officers more protection. It would make it clear that assaults on officers should not be dealt with internally in prisons but should be subject to the same process as an assault committed outside of prison walls.
I will also be arguing for more rights for officers who have been spat at by prisoners. As well as being horrible, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a very real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases, some with life-changing or even lethal consequences.
At the moment, if a prison officer is spat at, they can only request that a prisoner provide a blood sample. Needless to say that in most cases prisoners refuse, which leaves a prison officer with no choice other than to take a course of antiviral treatment and face a six-month wait.
My new clause would mean that refusing to provide a blood sample will, in itself, be a crime punishable by fine or additional custodial sentence in the hope that prisoners understand that there are serious consequences of spitting for themselves, not just the prison officer, and think again before doing it.
It was fascinating to visit HMP Leeds and I have got a real admiration for the work that Prison officers do. The lack of safety in prisons means that we are haemorrhaging good officers at a time when we can least afford to lose them.
I hope these measures will go some way towards keeping them safer, and in the job.