Truss announces 2,500 more staff to help tackle 'unacceptable' prison violence
Violence in jails has reached "unacceptable" levels and reoffending rates are "far too high", Justice Secretary Liz Truss admitted as she announced plans to hire an extra 2,500 prison officers.
In a major shake-up, "no-fly zones" will be imposed over jails to tackle the "toxic cocktail" of drugs, drones and mobile phones behind bars.
Offenders will be tested for drugs on entry and exit from prison in reforms to stop the rising tide of violence and substance abuse across the estate in England and Wales.
Ms Truss said the Government will find the money to recruit 2,500 extra officers because the issue is "so important".
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We do have levels of violence that are too high. I think those levels of violence are unacceptable. I'm determined to bring them down.
"I also think are reoffending rates are far too high and are putting a massive cost on everyday citizens in this country and we have to start doing things differently in our prisons."
Ms Truss sidestepped questions over whether the prisons system was in crisis.
"It's a serious situation," she replied.
Dwindling staff numbers have previously been highlighted by campaign groups and unions. The new surge, which includes an additional 400 personnel announced last month, will be focused on staffing categories which currently total around 18,000 officers.
Ms Truss admitted there were already "issues" recruiting enough prison staff in places like London.
Other measures in the overhaul include action to combat drones dropping drugs and other items into prison grounds.
Figures have revealed increasing numbers of incidents involving remotely controlled devices for smuggling contraband into jails.
One of the proposals understood to be under consideration is a trial with industry to test whether co-ordinates of prisons could be built into drone technology so the devices are repelled from flying over jails.
All inmates will face mandatory drugs testing on arrival and departure from prison, while 300 sniffer dogs have been trained to detect psychoactive substances, which have been identified as a factor behind surging incidents of violence.
The Government is working with mobile phone operators to block illegal use of handsets by inmates.
The shake-up will also target reoffending rates, with more than 100,000 crimes committed annually by ex-prisoners, costing society £15 billion a year.
Offenders' levels in English and maths will be tested so their progress on the inside can be measured, with results published in new prison league tables.
Plans to give governors more powers over education, work and health budgets will also be outlined.
I f a jail is found to be failing by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Justice Secretary will have a new legal duty to intervene.
The reform package is expected to reiterate the Government's commitment to a £1.3 billion building programme to replace the most dilapidated facilities and create 10,000 modern prison places.
Rising levels of violence have prompted a flurry of warnings about the state of prisons, with figures showing there are 65 assaults behind bars every day.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon blamed the problems on Tory cuts.
"The reduction by 25% of frontline prison officers mean those that remain are overstretched, overwhelmed and without support," he said. "She has to set out a clear plan on how she will deal with both recruitment and retention of staff.
"She must put forward a convincing package that will regain the trust of prison governors and prison officers and deliver a prison system that works.
"Without a comprehensive plan to deal with these issues then her speech will be nothing more than empty words and a blatant PR stunt."
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "The proposals being announced today appear to offer a mixed picture for those hopeful that we might see real change in our violent and failing prisons.
"There are welcome commitments on accountability and improving outcomes, although there is a danger efforts to measure performance will distract from tackling the daily carnage we are seeing in prisons across the country.
"It is also welcome to see the Government reversing previous decisions on cuts to staffing, although it remains to be seen how quickly things improve on the prison landings.
"The levels of deaths and violence are such that it will take more than just bodies in uniform to turn things around."