Rising violence in prisons 'fuelled by surge in legal highs'
Jails are in their worst state for 10 years, with rising rates of violence partly fuelled by a "surge" in legal highs, the chief inspector of prisons has warned.
In a highly critical annual report, Nick Hardwick said the growing popularity of drugs called Black Mamba and Spice is endangering the lives of inmates.
Staff cuts and overcrowding are also having a "significant impact" on safety, while some inmates are languishing in cockroach-infested cells, prompting one staff member at London's Wormwood Scrubs to say: "I wouldn't keep a dog in there."
Figures in the 2014-15 annual report into prisons in England and Wales reveal that more men and women are dying in prison, more male inmates are self-harming, and assaults on prisoners and staff have shot up.
Mr Hardwick urged the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove to grasp the nettle and tackle the crisis.
He said: "The outcomes we reported on in 2014-15 were the worst we reported on for 10 years. And in my view too many of the prisons that we went to were places of violence, squalor and idleness.
"And that is bad for prisoners, it is bad for staff and, perhaps most importantly, it is bad for the communities into which these prisoners are going to be returned."
Painting a bleak picture of conditions inside jails, Mr Hardwick said more prisoners are murdered, attacked, self-harm or kill themselves in prison than when he took up his post five years ago.
He warned the growing use of legal highs in prison is feeding violence among inmates.
The drugs are a lucrative market for organised criminal gangs because they are cheap, legal "on the outside", and difficult to detect.
The report warned: "More recently, in 2014-15, the rapid increase in the availability of new psychoactive substances - new drugs such as Spice and Black Mamba that are developed or chosen to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cannabis, heroin or amphetamines and may have unpredictable and life-threatening effects - has had a severe impact and has led to debt and associated violence."
Mr Hardwick said legal highs appeal to criminal gangs because they are more profitable than traditional, illegal drugs, and less risky to deal in.
He said: "What seems to happen is it hits individual prisons in a surge. You'll have somewhere it has hit, somewhere it hasn't. Where it does hit it hits very quickly.
"The profits to be made are big, they are cheap on the streets, you can buy a lot and even if you lose a lot you are still going to make good profits.
"It is not illegal to have on the outside - what's the risk? And it's difficult to detect - so what's not to like?"
Pointing to one prison he looked at, Mr Hardwick said: "The trade was being organised by organised crime outside prison, so money was exchanging hands outside the prison.
"The debt was being collected outside prison from friends and associates as well as from prisoners inside.
"And once people saw that they moved in in an even bigger way and overwhelmed the prison, and they were too slow to respond."
Overcrowding and job cuts have left staff "spinning more and more plates and they are starting to drop", he warned.
Education, training and other purposeful activity is "dismal" with one in five prisoners reporting they spent less than two hours out of their cells a day during the week.
The report said: "It is hard to imagine anything less likely to rehabilitate prisoners than days spent mostly lying on their bunks in squalid cells watching daytime TV.
"For too many prisoners, this was the reality and the 'rehabilitation revolution' had yet to start."
Mr Hardwick, who is leaving his post in January, said the situation is unsustainable and the Government cannot let things continue.
He said Mr Gove "has some huge challenges" ahead of him.
He added: "It can't go on like this. The cost is unsustainable and practical arguments in terms of what (effect) all this is having on reoffending outcomes is unsustainable. There is a moral case as well."
Prisons minister Andrew Selous said: "The safety of our staff as they deliver secure prison regimes is our priority and we are tackling dangerous new psychoactive substances to help drive down the number of assaults and violent incidents.
"Our prisons must punish those who break the law, but they should also be places where offenders can redeem themselves. We are determined to create a prison estate that effectively rehabilitates prisoners while keeping the public safe."
He said more than 1,700 new officers have been recruited in the past 18 months and more will be employed this year.