The UK government is seeking to drive the "wickedness from the shadows" as part of its reforms to prisons in England and Wales, the justice secretary declared on Monday afternoon (13 February).

Liz Truss also hit back at Labour's Shadow Attorney Baroness Shami Chakrabarti for blaming a "political arms race" for high prison populations amid fears that the service is overcrowded.

"What has actually happened in Chakrabarti's lifetime is the criminal justice system has got better at catching and convicting criminals, who have perpetrated some of the most appalling crimes imaginable," Truss said.

The senior Conservative, speaking at the Centre for Social Justice think tank in London, stressed that the prison population of around 85,000 has not significantly shifted since 2010 when the Coalition Government came into power.

Truss said a big driver in the prison population has been the conviction of sex offenders over the past two decades, with society changing and victims' confidence being boosted.

The justice secretary also said she wants to change prisons from "places of violence and despair" to places of "self-improvement and hope".

One reform Truss announced is to give the Prison Inspectorate, the watchdog for prisons in England and Wales, more powers so that the justice secretary can act on its recommendations. But Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, has called on the Government to go further.

He wants to see a "modest short-term" reduction in prison numbers by reducing the number of days added onto sentences for breach of rulesand by recalling fewer offenders to prison after release.

"If the secretary of state hopes that prisons can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and reduce numbers without the need for hard policy choices, then she is mistaken," Clegg said.

"We need to see immediate steps to alleviate overcrowding together with a long-term plan for a smaller, more sustainable and effective prison system. This requires leadership, and cross-party cooperation."

The Prison Officers' Association (POA) has also urged Truss to boost workforce numbers and divert more mentally ill people away from the system and towards the NHS.

"There's probably a little merit in what she's saying," Steve Gillan, the general secretary of the POA, told IBTimes UK.

"However, having said that, I think everybody recognises that there are far too many mentally ill people that aren't being diverted away from prisons."

"If the diversion programme worked properly and there was a properly funded NHS, then perhaps more people would be diverted away from prison in the first place and get the treatment that they deserve, rather than ending up in prison.

Suicides in English and Welsh prisons hit a record high of 119 in 2016, up 29 from the year before, according to Ministry of Justice figures.