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Commons Library analysis: Safety in prisons in England and Wales

Published Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Self-inflicted deaths, homicides, self-harm and assaults in prison in England and Wales have risen. The Ministry of Justice is taking action to reduce violence, but concerns remain.

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Current concerns about prison safety in England and Wales

The Commons Library has published a briefing paper setting out current concerns about prison safety in England and Wales and how the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is addressing those concerns.

Rising rates of self-harm and self-inflicted death

There have been concerns for some time that various factors are combining to make prisons less safe for staff and prisoners.

The most recent statistics

The most recent MoJ 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.

Why have prisons become less safe?

Concerns have been expressed 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. With more prisoners and less money, will prisons be able to continue to provide programmes and activities or will rehabilitative work be squeezed out as prisons struggle simply to contain the prison population?  It is generally agreed that the availability and use in prisons of new psychoactive substances has fuelled violence against staff and prisoners.

Nick Hardwick, who until February 2016 was HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales,  has argued in his annual report for 2014-15 that prisons are at their worst for 10 years, with the deficiencies being most acute in adult male prisons.  Previously, in his annual report for 2013-14, he had said:

"Increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence cannot be attributed to a single cause. They reflect some deep-seated trends and affect prisons in both the public and private sectors. Nevertheless, in my view, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures, particularly in the second half of 2013–14 and particularly in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor in the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed and that were reflected in NOMS’ own safety data".

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, Nigel Newcomen, has drawn attention to the scale of the problem of rising suicide rates. Prison staff (he says) do excellent work in saving many prisoners from themselves, but there are “truly shocking” levels of mental ill health and despair in prisons and there may be little prison staff can do to stop the most determined attempts.

Ministers have argued that the changing nature of the prison population, with more prisoners serving sentences for crimes of violence, and the widespread use of new psychoactive substances have contributed to the decline in safety and increase in violence. They have, though, consistently argued that there is no clear evidence of a link to budget cuts and reductions in staffing.

In its March 2015 report Prisons: Planning and policies, the Justice Committee described the decrease in safety as “particularly troubling”.  It was unlikely (the Committee suggested) that decreased safety was not linked to (amongst other things) changes in operational policy and falling staffing levels. 

In its response to the Justice Committee, the MoJ said that dealing with issues of violence, self-harm and self-inflected deaths was a “major priority”.  It pointed to the high proportion of prisoners who are vulnerable, in many cases because they had prior life experiences such as drug or alcohol abuse, social disadvantage, sexual or physical abuse or mental health problems which increased the likelihood of them harming or killing themselves.  It also noted that, for some, being in prison – where drugs and alcohol are controlled and with more access to healthcare - may even be a protective factor, although for others it would increase the risk.

The Justice Committee revisited the issue in their May 2016 report, Prison Safety. The Committee's central recommendation was that the Ministry and NOMS should together produce an action plan for improving prison safety, addressing the factors underlying the rises in violence, self-harm and suicide.  The Committee was particularly concerned about the problem of staff retention in the context of the reduction in prison officer numbers since 2010.

How is the National Offender Management Service tackling these problems?

Ministers have expressed their determination to tackle these problems - reducing the number of deaths in custody is a top priority - but commentators agree that these issues are complex and require careful responses.

The MoJ has undertaken a range of work in response to recent incidents, including

  • the development of a violence reduction strategy
  • the creation of regional leads for safer custody
  • an assessment of the evidence on male self-harm and on what drives institutional violence.
  • it is now an offence to to smuggle new psychoactive substances into prison
  • the National Offender Management Service is trialling the use of body-worn cameras and training sniffer dogs to detect new psychoactive substances
  • three national learning days in 2014-15 on self-inflicted death and violence
  • a joint national protocol between the Prison Service, Crown Prosecution Service and Association of Chief Police Officers provides that prisoners who commit serious assaults against prison staff will be prosecuted unless there is a good reason not to.

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

Topic: Prisons

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