Prison system deteriorating under Grayling, chief inspector says

Standards in British jails are deteriorating to a "significant" degree, the chief inspector of prisons has said.

The warning comes amid 30% reductions in staff numbers, overcrowding across the prison estate and a tough new regime which limits prisoner's access to books and other essentials.

"If you look since the beginning of the year, our inspection findings have dropped significantly," Nick Hardwick told Newsnight.

"We are seeing a lot more prisons that are not meeting acceptable standards across a range of things we look at. And I go to most of these inspections and I see with my own eyes a deterioration.

"There is a danger I think of the politicians over-analysing the figures and miss what is under their noses on the wings, which is sometimes I think people being held in deplorable conditions who are suicidal, they don't have anything to do and they don't have anyone to talk to. We need to look at what's under our noses and sort that."

Suicides rose from 60 to 72 between 2012 and 2013 and they are likely to continue rising this year.

There were 42 suicides in jail in the first half of this year, up from 30 the year before.

A Howard League for Penal Reform report found the total number of prison officers had dropped 30% to 19,325 in the last three years.

"I am absolutely sure that lack of staff [due to] cuts in prison officer numbers are contributing to increased violence, people being locked up for longer, and as a consequence, the highest death rate we have ever had in prisons," chief executive Frances Crook told Newsnight.

Hardwick said of the suicides: "I think they are an indication of wider problems in the Prison Service, an indication of a prison system under growing pressure.

"It's not acceptable we have this rate of suicides in prison." reports have found worrying evidence that prisoners on suicide watch are sometimes put in solitary confinement if they refuse to attend work.

In May, the president of the Prison Governors' Association warned prisons may reach "tipping point" because of the draconian new rules put in place by Chris Grayling.

"Some of the recent changes to the IEP [Incentives and Earned Privileges] system have undermined this trust and threaten the legitimacy of decisions made by staff," Eoin McLennan-Murray said.

"If this is allowed to continue unchecked then a tipping point may be reached whereby prisons are more likely to become unstable than stable.

"We are already seeing the early signs of this with rising levels of assaults, reportable incidents and a disturbing rise in self-inflicted deaths."

Two weeks ago the Ministry of Justice announced it would recruit ex-prison guards on short term contracts in order to plug gaps in staffing levels.

Murray welcomed the move but said it should have taken place months ago, when it first raised concerns.

"We were saying we were heading for a shortage some time before the Prison Service reacted. I think they were late to react when the warning signs were there," he said.