A decline in safety

There has been a decline in prison safety since 2012. Assaults and incidents of self-harm are at record highs and the number of self-inflicted deaths has risen. Chief Inspectors of Prisons, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, Independent Monitoring Boards and the Justice Committee have all repeatedly expressed concern.

The urgent notification process was introduced at the end of 2017. It allows the Chief Inspector to bring urgent concerns to the attention of the Secretary of State who is then required to respond with an action plan. It has been used five times for adult prisons.

In the year ending September 2019, there were close to 61,000 recorded incidents of self-harm in prisons, which was equivalent to 732 per 1,000 prisoners. This number was over a fifth higher than in the previous year and more than double the number ten years previously.

There were 90 apparent suicides in prisons in the year ending September 2019, although 58 deaths had not been classified. The most suicides in one year, once all deaths had been classified, was 124 in the year ending December 2016.

In the year ending June 2019, there were 34,000 recorded assaults in prisons, the highest ever recorded, which was equivalent to 412 per 1,000 prisoners. This was more than double the number recorded ten years prior, although the rise has entirely been since 2012.

In the year ending March 2019, there were 2,200 recorded incidents of protesting behaviour in prisons, which includes forming barricades, taking hostages, and concerted indiscipline. This was nearly four times the equivalent number ten years previously.

Reasons for the decline and measures taken to improve safety

Various factors have been identified as contributing to the decline in safety.

The Ministry of Justice acknowledged in its 2016 white paper, Prison Safety and Reform, that there was a link between violence and the number of staff and committed to recruiting more staff. Staff numbers have risen since 2016 but have not returned to pre-2010 levels. There are now concerns about the experience of staff and about retention. The Ministry of Justice has piloted issuing staff with PAVA incapacitant spray as a measure to reduce violence and is rolling out its use.

Drugs misuse and psychoactive substances have been identified factors in the decline in safety. Drug debt leads to bullying and violence. Prisoners taking psychoactive substances can be violent. The Prison Drugs Strategy published in April 2019 set out measures to restrict supply and the Ministry of Justice is funding measures such as x-ray scanners to deal with security in prison. Prisons involved in the Ten Prisons Project which focussed on reducing violence including through increasing security against drugs saw a reduction in the percentage of positive results from random mandatory drug tests.

The Justice Committee has considered how limitations to prison regimes and poor day-to-day living conditions, including crowding, can both negatively impact on safety. The Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards emphasised the link between safety and purposeful activity and this link was recognised by the Justice Secretary. The Committee repeated its call for a dual focus on improving safety and rehabilitative initiatives saying prisons would not become less violent without proper investment in purposeful activity for prisoners. In August 2019 the Government announced up to £2.5 billion of funding to create 10,000 additional prison places.

The Chief Inspector and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman have been critical of the quality of support for prisoners in crisis, delivered through Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) case management. The Ministry of Justice is developing a new version of the ACCT case management process and has rolled out a revised and improved suicide and self-harm prevention course for staff.

Failure to learn lessons and implement recommendations

HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, Independent Monitoring Boards, and the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody have all expressed serious concerns at the seeming inability of prisons to take action as a result of their reports, in terms of learning lessons, implementing changes, and sustaining resulting improvements.

Government strategy

HM Prisons and Probation Service has a national strategy for safety. The Justice Committee has called for an overarching and integrated prisons strategy.


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