10 of the biggest problems facing Britain’s prisons today

Many experts and politicians have said Britain’s prisons are in crisis. Looking at our list, they might be right

Prison Inspectorate annual report cover

Even Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of prisons seems to have a grim view of prisons in England and Wales judging from the front cover of its annual report


Below is a list of 10 of the most pressing problems from violence to suicide to drugs & alcohol facing prisoners in England and Wales today. Most of the issues are the same for those incarcerated in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which manage their own prison systems.

We start with one of the underlying causes of many of the troubles – less money due to austerity measures following the financial crisis.

ONE: Budget cuts

The £3.3bn budget for prisons in England & Wales has been cut by 24 per cent over the past three years. The cuts have had wide-ranging implications, especially in terms of staffing and rising violence. One small but significant example is the food budget being reduced from £2.20 per prisoner per day in 2012 to £1.96 a day in 2013.

TWO: Assaults

The number of assaults involving adult male prisoners in England & Wales increased by 14 per cent from 2012/13 to 2013/14 and was the highest for any year for which the Inspectorate  of Prisons has data. There was also a dramatic 38 per cent rise in the number of serious assaults. And assaults on staff are also at their highest level since 2007.




Assaults have been on a steady decline for younger inmates for the past few years, but adult males have experienced increasing levels of violence.

THREE: Overcrowding

At the end of March 2014, 77 of the 119 prisons in England & Wales were overcrowded and the system’s capacity had reached 99 per cent according to the Penal Reform Trust. A prison inspectorate report in 2014 said that 60 per cent of prisons were overcrowded and prisoners were “sometimes living in squalid conditions.”

FOUR: Staffing

Prison officer numbers were cut by 30 per cent cut between 2010-13 according to Howard League for Penal Reform. There was one officer per 2.9 prisoners in 2000, but by September 2013 this had increased to 4.8 prisoners per officer.

FIVE: Suicides

The 12 months to March 2014 saw the highest number of suicides recorded since 2005 in prisons in England & Wales. There were 88 compared with 52 the previous year. A Guardian investigation into the rise in suicides identified all 134 who died from January 2013 to October 2014, an average of more than six a month.




SIX: Mental health 

The Prison Reform Trust estimates that 15 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women in prison report symptoms indicative of psychosis, compared with a rate of 4 per cent among the general public. In a Ministry of Justice study , 49 per cent of women and 23 per cent of male prisoners were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression.

SEVEN: Self-harm

Incidents of self-harm rose three per cent to 23,478 in prisons in England & Wales in the 12 months to March 2014. Despite a slight fall in self-harm amongst female prisoners, women still account for a disproportionate amount of the recorded incidents.




Women account for less than five per cent of the prison population in England & Wales, but over one-quarter of all self-harm incidents. Twenty-seven per cent of self-harm incidents occur within the first month of arriving in a prison.

EIGHT: Sexual assault

The extent of the problem is not known, but the Howard League’s Commission on Sex in Prison found that at least one per cent of prisoners report being sexually abused in prison. Overall, they estimated that between 850 to 1650 prisoners in prisons in England & Wales could be victims of sexual assault. Other studies have shown that another 4-5 per cent prisoners are victims of coercive sex.

NINE: Drugs & alcohol

Prison Inspectorate survey in 2014 found that 26 per cent of new arrivals at prison were substance abusers and 19 per cent misused alcohol. It also said that cannabis substitutes Spice and Black Mamba were particular “causes for concern” in more than a third of the jails inspected. Another survey found that 19 per cent of prisoners who used heroin at least once said they used it for the first time in a prison.

TEN: “Incidents of height”

This term describes when inmates climb on to netting or railings in the hope they will be taken to segregation units and then “shipped out” of the prison to a safer jail. The number nearly doubled in from 591 in 2012-13 to 1,007 in 2013-14.

Of course, there are plenty of other problems facing the prison system ranging from reintegration into the community to excessive time locked in cells to educational facilities to privatisation. Can you think of any others we might have missed? We’d love to hear from you.


TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk 
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/PrisonWatchUK

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