In the last year there were 100 self-inflicted deaths in prisons and the need for interventions from staff as a result of dangerous incidents rose to ‘unprecedented levels’, according to a new report from the House of Commons’ Justice Committee. The MPs reported a deepening of the prisons crisis with higher rates of suicide, self-harm and assault compared to the previous 12 months as prisons struggled to retain staff.
Noting that prisoners in Wandsworth were locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, MPs have asked for the number of hours each day prisoners spend in their cells on average at each prison as well as quarterly reports with ‘key indicators’ of prison disorder.
There were 2,690 assaults on staff in the last six months of 2015, an increase of 18% compared to the previous six months; and 100 self-inflicted deaths last year compared to 79 in the previous year. Since January 2015 each quarter there have been over 150 serious assaults between prisoners. The committee flagged up the death of a prison officer working for Serco, Lorraine Barwell, in July 2015 who had been attacked by a prisoner she was escorting from court.
According the Prison Officers’ Association, deployment of tactical intervention teams from the National Tactical Response Group had hit ‘unprecedented levels’ of 30 to 40 times a month. There were 1,935 fires in adult prisons and young offender establishments in 2015, a 57% increase on the previous year.
‘The Ministry of Justice hoped that prison safety would stabilise,’ said Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill MP. ‘In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so. This is a matter of great concern and improvement is urgently needed.’
‘It is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and disorder. Without such action, the implementation of these wider reforms will be undermined.’
Bob Neill, chair of Justice Committee
The prisons minster Andrew Selous has attributed the decline in safety to the influx of new psychoactive substances and ‘a more challenging mix of prisoners, and a higher than anticipated prison population at a time when staffing numbers had been reduced’.
Bob Neill pointed to ‘a serious and deep-rooted issue’ of staff retention. Selous told MPs there were some 2,250 prison officers recruited when the MoJ went ‘full throttle with a major recruitment programme’; however that drive led to a net gain of only 440 officers. More than a third of staff who left (39%) had resigned.
According to the Prison Officers’ Association, there are 7,000 fewer officers than in 2010 when the prison population was 2,500 lower.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award