Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick says most prisons are unsafe

Staff shortages, privatisation and overcrowding compromise safety

Source: Policy Exchange, Richard Gardner/Rex Features.

Source: Policy Exchange, Richard Gardner/Rex Features.


Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, has said that the proportion of prisons that meet safety standards fell by half last year, resulting in an increased number of assaults and an unprecedented suicide rate.

When Mr Hardwick took up his post in 2010, 85 per cent of prisons in England and Wales had  acceptable safety levels. But last year, only 42 per cent of jails were considered safe.

During a panel discussion at the Prison Services Network Conference, which was held at the Royal College of Nursing on 27 February, Mr Hardwick said the number of serious assaults by prisoners on prison staff and fellow inmates has increased by 31 per cent over the past year. He added that every month about seven prisoners in England commit suicide.

Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association, echoed Mr Hardwick’s concerns. Mr Gillan said that after the latest report on Pentonville prison, where he used to work, he went there to see with his own eyes how much it had declined.

“When I went there I got a feeling that it was an unsafe prison. Prison officers were not in control. They were hiding away from prisoners, not challenging them.”

Mr Hardwick warned that some government initiatives were to blame for the present situation. Here are the major issues he highlighted.


Staff shortages

The main factor guaranteeing safety is good relations between officers and inmates, Mr Hardwick said. He added that such relations depend on how many staff there were and on how consistent they were in their treatment of prisoners.

But with prison officers frequently being transferred from one jail to another while having to deal with the rising number of inmates, it is impossible to make these relationships work.

Mr Hardwick believes that prison staff must know all the inmates they are in charge of and that officers must be sure there is someone they can alert in case of emergency.

“There is simply not enough staff to run prisons safely.”

Source: Arno Kempers, Flickr

Source: Arno Kempers, Flickr

Challenging prison population

The number of people who committed serious crimes and are serving long sentences is rising making it more difficult for staff to keep prisons safe. The number of inmates with health problems is growing as well.

On Mr Hardwick’s last visit to Pentonville prison, 11 per cent of inmates were clinically malnourished when they arrived in prison.

“This happens because of the chaotic lifestyle these men were leading before arriving in prison, caused by drug use and very high level of homelessness.”



Mr Hardwick said the way more and more prisons were being privatised has proven ineffective.

He said that when healthcare is provided by a service outside the prison, for example, it can often be subcontracted to a GP who is unfamiliar with the setting.

Doctors from outside the system often don’t know how to work in a prison environment. Prison governors told Mr Hardwick that they had no control over contracts.

“This is a fragmentation of services that prisons are responsible for. It influences stability of the whole system, causing deaths and violence in prisons.”

TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk

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