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Commons Library analysis: Safety in prisons in England and Wales

Published Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Self-inflicted deaths, homicides, self-harm and assaults in prison in England and Wales have risen. The Government published a white paper on 3 November 2016 with a number of detailed proposals to reduce violence, with legislation coming soon.

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A crisis in prisons?

In recent months there has been a series of violent incidents in England and Wales, and prison officers have reportedly walked out in protest in several prisons. In November 2016, the Prison Officer Association called all its members to take part in protest action against declining safety. This culminated in the Government obtaining a High Court Injunction. Talks resumed on 17 November 2016.

The most recent statistics

The most recent Ministry of Justice statistics show that deaths from natural causes, self-inflicted deaths and homicides in prison have increased, numbers and rates of instances of self-harm have increased and numbers and rates of assaults and assaults on staff have increased too. Statistics show levels of mental ill health and distress in prison that are higher than those in the general population.

Concerns raised

Concerns have been expressed for some time about the effects of rising prisoner numbers and shrinking budgets on prison regimes and thus on the welfare and safety of prisoners and prison staff. Amongst those raising concerns have been:

  • Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, whose most recent annual report noted “continuing high and rising levels of self-inflicted deaths and serious self-harm among adult men in prisons” and a need for a nationally coordinated response to new synthetic drugs
  • The Commons Justice Committee, who in May 2016 called for an action plan for improving prison safety
  • The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, who noted a “shocking” rise in self-inflicted deaths
  • The Howard League for Penal Reform, who designated 2016 the “worst year ever recorded for suicide in prisons."


What is the Government doing about it?

On 3 November 2016, the Government published a white paper Prison Safety and Reform. This acknowledges the decline in prison safety since 2012.  It identifies a number of “personal and situational factors” behind this, including long term shifts in the nature of the prison population and the use of psychoactive substances. 

The paper proposes a raft of reforms, including greater autonomy and accountability for prison governors, enshrining in law what prisons should be delivering, and a clearer framework for the Secretary of State to intervene when prisons are judged to be failing.

The paper devotes a chapter to the issue of prison safety, with proposals to:

  • Improve the way prisoners are managed, with dedicated prison officers to oversee their progress
  • Legislate to simplify the framework for testing for psychoactive substances, in order to be more responsive as new substances emerge;
  • Tackle security threats such as drugs, phones and drones
  • Develop a more robust response to criminality in prison, through joint working with the police, the CPS and other partners.

Further briefings about prison and probation are available on Parliament’s topic page for prisons.



Commons Briefing papers CBP-7467

Authors: Pat Strickland; Gabrielle Garton Grimwood; Tom Powell; Grahame Allen

Topic: Prisons

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