Seven things we learnt about prison safety in England & Wales from latest major report

Parliamentary committee calls for urgent improvement of unsafe prisons  

Credit: Guillermo Ruiz, Flickr

Credit: Guillermo Ruiz, Flickr

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The Justice Select Committee said prisons in England & Wales “continue to deteriorate significantly” and that “improvement is urgently needed” in its latest report on prison safety.

Here are seven things we learnt from the report. 

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ONE: There’s been a “rapid deterioration” in safety 

The Justice Select Committee (JSC) said “overall levels of safety in prisons have not stabilised as the Ministry of Justice hoped, let alone improved, and continue to deteriorate significantly” with rises in violence, self-harm and suicide.

OK, so many of us knew that already. But the three charts below on assaults, self-harm and suicide put it in perspective.

More staff and prisoners are ending up in hospital due to assaults. There have been over 150 serious assaults on staff and over 500 serious assaults between prisoners in each quarter since January 2015.

The chart below shows how assaults on prisoners and staff have increased in the past year.

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Source: Justice Select Committee

Source: Justice Select Committee

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Self-harm incidents grew by 11 per cent in the six months to December 2015 compared to the preceding six months. The chart below compares levels in December 2014 with those one year later.

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Source: Justice Select Committee

Source: Justice Select Committee

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In the 12 months to March 2016 there were 100 self-inflicted deaths (79 in the previous year) and six homicides (four in the previous year) as the chart below shows.

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Source: Justice Select Committee

Source: Justice Select Committee

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So the charts confirm that the situation is getting worse, but what else did we learn from the JSC’s report?

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TWO: Getting staff to work in prisons is difficult  

Austerity measures have resulted in 7,000 fewer prison officers in jails in England & Wales now than in 2010 (when there were also fewer prisoners).

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) recruited 2,250 officers last year, but so many left that the net gain was only 440 officers.

NOMS said it would recruit up to 3,700 staff between February 2015 and March 2016, but the JSC report says that “recruitment has not kept pace with people leaving the service”.

In the North East, leavers were more numerous than joiners. The chart below shows the reasons for staff leaving.

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Source: Justice Select Committee

Source: Justice Select Committee

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THREE: Prison “SWAT teams” see more action 

As assaults and levels of violence rise, specialist teams with exotic names such as “Tornado” and the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) are being used more frequently.

These tactical intervention teams deal with hostage taking, concerted indiscipline and incidents at height. Deployment of the NTRG more than doubled to between 30 and 40 times each month over the course of 2015.

“Tornado” response teams, which assist with the most serious incidents, were used 16 times in 2014 and 15 times in 2015.

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FOUR: There have been loads of fires in prisons

There were 1,935 fires in adult prisons and young offender establishments 2015. That’s a 57 per cent increase on 2014 and 68 per cent increase on 2013.

In explaining the figures Andrew Selous, the Minister for Prisons and Probation, told the JSC that the reporting of fire incidents has significantly improved, which led to a greater number being reported in 2015.

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FIVE: There are concerns about corrupt officers 

Almost one-quarter of prison officers who left the prison service in the three months to December 2015 were dismissed. That’s 360 prison officers who were dismissed.

Michael Spurr, NOMS’ chief executive, acknowledged that officer corruption was an issue, but said his organisation was alert to the threat.

“The vast majority of our staff are good, decent, hard-working public servants,” said Mr Spurr. “There is a very small minority who breach that…we will take action where we find it. The convictions [of prison officers] effectively demonstrate that. We have had a number of those recently.”

The JSC welcomed the MoJ’s new Corruption Prevention Strategy to “address the apparent lack of observance of professional standards by some officers”.

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SIX: Psychoactive drugs are still a big problem 

The MoJ and NOMS have created new offences for the possession of psychoactive drugs such as Spice and Black Mamba, which mimic the effects of other drugs like cannabis and ecstasy. But these so called “legal highs” are still causing big problems.

Many assaults have been attributed to these psychoactive substances and they can often lead to both mental and physical health problems for prisoners.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said that NOMS did not act sufficiently quickly to deal with issues related to these new drugs as they emerged.

The government said a new test for psychoactive substances was now available as part of mandatory drug testing in prisons.

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SEVEN: The MoJ has promised more transparency  

The JSC praised the MoJ and NOMS (enough acronyms there?) for making “considerable efforts” to address problems of drugs and violence in prisons. But it has asked both organisations to do more.

The MoJ has said it will publish new prison league tables to measure performance in areas such as hours spent by prisoners out of their cell, levels of purposeful activity, educational value added, suitable qualifications acquired, effective care and other metrics.

It has also promised to publish open and transparent figures for deaths in custody, assaults on prisoners, assaults on staff, staff turnover overall and by institution, reducing overcrowding, reducing re-offending, qualifications gained and jobs secured to ensure others can hold us to account.

On top of all this, the JSC has asked the MoJ and NOMS to develop an action plan with measurable outcomes to address the rises in violence, self harm and suicide. It asked for quarterly reports including:

  • Indicators of disorder: report incidents involving the specialist tactical response teams such as “Tornado” including the reason for the action taken in each case.
  • Staffing: better figures on staff recruitment and retention including the number of prisons operating restricted regimes and the number of staff on “detached duty” at other prisons per month.
  • NOMS’ performance ratings: quarterly ratings of performance of individual prisons.
  • Activity: data on the average number of hours each day prisoners spend locked in their cells at each prison.

We look forward to seeing all of this data to find out more about what is really happening in prisons in England & Wales these days.



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