Chris Grayling has denied there is a prison overcrowding crisis following shocking claims to the contrary by the Chief Inspector of Prisons at the weekend.
The Justice Secretary and Epsom’s MP slammed Nick Hardwick’s assertions that the prison system is so overcrowded that the safety of inmates and staff is at risk.
Mr Hardwick had said spending cuts have resulted in the system being so stretched that inmates are killing themselves or deliberately getting sent to punishment blocks to escape dire conditions.
But Mr Grayling has said this is not true and that while spaces have become tighter in recent weeks, the Government is already creating 2,000 extra prison places which will be in place by next April.
The Ministry of Justice has repeatedly denied claims that High Down prison, in Banstead, is so stretched in staff numbers that prisoners are spending up to 23-and-a-half hours locked in their cells, missing rehabilitative courses.
Responding to an urgent question on the issue this afternoon in Parliament, Mr Grayling said:
"We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis.
"At the time of the next election we will have more adult male prison places than we inherited in May 2010 despite financial challenges created by the last Government."
He admitted that the prison population is rising again, but said that additional reserve capacity is available to the Government among former staff members.
Mr Grayling said there were staff shortages in London and a greater number of prison places than he had expected have been taken up by sex offenders.
"There has been a significant increase in convictions for historic sex abuse offences.
"I am delighted to be finding the space for them behind bars," he said.
He said that it in a number of public and private prisons, "a few more prisoners will have to share cells for a few weeks" - which he said he does not see as a problem.
"My object is to bring down cost while maintaining capacity levels
"We will end this Parliament with more adult places than we inherited, more hours of work being done, more education for young detainees, and a modern system which is less expensive to run."
Labour MP Sadiq Khan, Shadow Justice Secretary, said: "The complacency of the Justice Secretary is breathtaking.
"He appears to think there are no problems in our prisons and that MPs can be kept in the dark."
He said already over-crowded prisons are being asked to squeeze in another 400 inmates over the next few weeks and that more than 600 emergency prison places have been bought from G4S, Serco and Sodexo in the last five months.
He said staff who have been made redundant are now being paid to return to work due to the "chronic shortage of staff" and that last month alone 11 self-inflicted deaths occurred in prisons.
Mr Khan said: "The Justice Secretary seems to think there are no problems in our prisons.
"The chief inspector of prisons disagrees, we disagree, prison governors disagree, prison staff disagree and bereaved families disagree.
"Since May 2010, this Government has closed down 18 prisons and cut 6,000 prison staff yet the prison population is broadly the same as May 2010.
"This crisis is of this Government’s own making.
"Does the Justice Secretary think there is any link between this and the rise of 60 per cent in the use of the riot squad to deal with serious disturbances in our prisons last year?
"How many prisons are currently operating on half regime, meaning prisoners not working or going on courses as they should be, because of staffing shortages?
"What additional contingencies is he putting in place to deal with the possibility of disturbances in prisons?
"Rather than our prisons being places where offenders can be rehabilitated, they have become unsafe warehouses on this Government’s watch."
Mr Grayling said prison places are rising with 80,269 places in May 2010, 82,395 now and 85,133 projected for 2015.
He repeatedly criticised the Labour Government’s approach of early release for prisoners which he said was indicative of a real prison overcrowding crisis.
"I make no apology for the fact that under this Government more people are going to prison and they are going to prison for longer and I have a strategy in place to make sure that we will always have the space for them," he said - adding that rehabilitation during and post-prison would be key to this.
Crispin Blunt, MP for Banstead, commended the Justice Secretary for his drive to save money and said the prison service now needed to start reconsidering privatising public sector prisons so they can be better-run and more value for money for taxpayers.
Mr Grayling said the approach he had taken was to privatise particular services within the system, on the recommendation of the Prison Governors’ Association.
He added: "I don’t want to see a prison population of the size that we have at the moment but I don’t want to see as a situation where a court can’t send an offender to prison who they believe should.
"That is why our rehabilitative strategy is so important.
"The way we bring down the population in our prison estate is by preventing people from coming back there rather than not locking them up in the first place.
"We have introduced a tougher and more Spartan regime in our prisons."
In a statement from its chairman and general secretary, the POA said: "Once again prison staff will have to deal with the consequences of the fiasco in the management of the criminal justice system.
"When will politicians recognise the contribution made by our members in the essential protection of the public?"
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