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Safety in prisons in England and Wales

Published Tuesday, December 5, 2017

From 2012 there has been a decline in prison safety. The Justice Committee has described a rapid and ongoing deterioration. Chief Inspectors of Prisons, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman and interested organisations have expressed concern. The Government has acknowledged the decline and committed to additional funding to recruit more staff. A white paper, Prison Safety and Reform, was published in November 2016 and included measures to address the use of new psychoactive substances, mobile phones and drones.

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The decline in prison safety 

From 2012 there has been a decline in prison safety. In March 2015 the Justice Committee noted that all available indicators were pointing to a rapid deterioration in standards of safety in the preceding year or so. In May 2016 the Committee described an “ongoing and rapid deterioration”. In April 2017 the Committee predicted that prison safety would continue to be one of the key issues facing the Ministry of Justice. 

Ministry of Justice statistics published in October 2017 show the number of self-harm incidents and assaults reached a record high in the most recent year available.

Concerns raised

Chief Inspectors of Prisons, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman and interested organisations have, for some time, expressed concern.

Various explanations have been offered for this decline in safety.  These include factors such as reductions in staffing and difficulties retaining staff, high levels of drug use and particularly new psychoactive substances, overcrowding and long term shifts in the nature of the prison population.

Government policy

The Government has acknowledged the decline in safety and responded to these concerns.

A white paper, Prison Safety and Reform, published in November 2016 said that the Government’s analysis showed “a statistical correlation between the numbers of staff and the level of violent incidents” and concluded that more frontline staff were needed. The Government has committed to additional funding to recruit more staff. The white paper included measures to address the use of NPS, mobile phones and drones. The Prisons and Courts Bill 2016-2017 included legislative measures proposed in the white paper, including on testing for psychoactive substances. However the bill was lost at the dissolution of Parliament before the 2017 general election. There was no prisons legislation announced in the 2017 Queen’s Speech. The newly appointed Justice Secretary, David Lidington, said in an open letter that work on prison reform will continue. In October 2017 he stated that the Government was developing an update to the 2016 white paper and would soon be publishing a prison safety strategy and action plan.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7467

Authors: Jacqueline Beard; Grahame Allen

Topic: Prisons

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