Escalating incidents at height show prison system failing

“When you get thrown over the top you come out like big chips. That was always the joke”

The chips are down in our prisons. Picture: Mike Rastiello

The chips are certainly down in prisons across England and Wales. From 2014 to 2015, incidents at height increased by 72 per cent. Campaigners say this is yet another indication that our prison system is failing.

According to Andrew Selous the majority of incidents at height occur “when prisoners go onto netting on prison wings”.

22 prisons have had over 100 such incidents since 2010 and three have had over 200. HMP Hindley recorded the highest number, with 299 incidents since 2010. Closely followed by HMP Nottingham with 290 and HMP Altcourse with 242.

“These statistics, along with the sharp rise in the number of assaults, self harm, deaths and indiscipline are just another indication that the prison system is in serious trouble” says a spokesperson for the Howard League.


Escalating violence

Frank Harris, 53, has been out of prison for eight years and is now a volunteer for the St Giles Trust. Before that he had spent 30 years in and out of prison. Incidents at height weren’t such a problem when he was on the inside but he is unsurprised that they are now.

“Prisons are violent places. Although “Big Chip” incidents weren’t that common in my day, I’m not surprised they are now. We didn’t have knives in prisons 100 years ago but now they are common. Prisoners are always looking for new ways to hurt each other.”

Speaking to Prison Watch UK, Jo Stevens MP Shadow Minister for Justice, says “we have the perfect storm in our prisons”. She attributes the rise in violence to increasing time spent in cells.

“Violence stems from the sheer frustration in being locked away for so many hours in a day. A rising prison population and declining numbers of prison staff means more time spent in cells and less in purposeful activity. This is why we are seeing alcohol and drug usage increasing and incidents at height going up significantly.”


Lack of purposeful activity.

A recent report into Nottingham prison found the amount of time prisoners had out of cell to be “limited and unpredictable”. It found staff shortages to be the cause of this restricted routine. “During the working day about half of the prisoners were locked up in their cells doing nothing. Many prisoners could spend up to 21 hours a day confined to their cells”. There have been 290 incidents at height at HMP Nottingham since 2010.

At HMP Liverpool where there have been 187 incidents at height since 2010, the amount of time out of cell was deemed “poor, and unacceptable for somein the latest report. Most prisoners receive a maximum of five hours out of cell during the working day. For others it is as little as one hour.


Young Offenders Institutions take the brunt of incidents

Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) see a disproportionate number of incidents at height. Werrington, Wetherby and Feltham have had 194, 158 and 106 respectively since 2010.

YOIs are required to provide 27 hours of education a week and three hours of physical education. However since August 2015, none of these YOIs have reached that requirement. 



What needs to happen?

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “These figures demonstrate the very serious challenges facing the prison service. They show how badly prison reform is needed.

“The majority of incidents at height are resolved quickly without injury, damage or disruption to prison regimes but we must do better at reducing violence and helping prisoners rehabilitate.”

The Howard League argue that in order to bring levels of violence and disorder under control, fundamentally we need to address the size of our prison population.

“We need to have a sensible discussion on who we send to prison and for how long. The current situation is unsustainable. Ever increasing numbers mean prisoners are not taking part in purposeful activity and prisons are becoming more violent.”


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