Prison safety in England and Wales has declined sharply over the last few years. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the Justice Committee have all voiced alarm. The May Government acknowledged the problem, citing factors such as new psychoactive drugs. Critics blame cutbacks. So what is going wrong, and what can be done to fix it?

All the main indicators show a decline in prison safety
  • The rate of self-inflicted deaths has more than doubled since 2013.
  • Self-harm reached a record high of over 40,000 incidents in the year
    up to December 2016.
  • Assaults reached a record high of over 26,000 incidents in the year
    up to December 2016.

Compared with the previous year:

• prisoner-on-prisoner assaults increased by 23%

• prisoner-on-staff assaults increased by 38%

The chart below shows assaults per 1,000 prisoners since 2000.

Assaults reached a record high of over 26,000 incidents in 2016

In their 2016 Prison Safety and Reform White Paper, the May Government identified a number of “personal and situational factors” behind declining safety, including anti-social attitudes and poor self-control.

New Psychoactive Substances are making prisons less safe

The proportion of prisoners testing positive for drugs under the Random Mandatory Drug Testing programme (RMDT) has been falling since 2003/04. However, it is widely recognised that many prisoners are changing to newer synthetic drugs, which are not captured under the RMDT. The White Paper cited a dramatic increase in the use of these New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) since 2012. In September 2016, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman called this a “game-changer in terms of reducing
prison safety”.

In response to the wider problem of NPS in society, the Government brought in legislation in 2015 and 2016, including a new offence of possession in a custodial setting.

There is a more challenging mix of prisoners in the system

There have been long-term shifts in the prison population, with a rise in the proportion of prisoners with convictions for violence against the person, sexual offences and drug offences. The 2016 White Paper suggests these have played a part in the decline in safety.

The number of prison officers has declined

In a 2015 report, the Justice Committee argued that “severely restricted regimes” had resulted from changes in operational policy and falling staffing levels; it was, the Committee argued, “improbable” that decreased prison safety was not linked to this. The 2016 White Paper said that, whilst it had been “right to seek to operate prisons more efficiently”, the Government’s analysis showed “a statistical correlation between the numbers of staff and the level of violent incidents”.

The chart below shows that, since 2011:

  • the number of prison officers employed by public sector prisons has fallen by 25%;
  • the prison population in those prisons has fallen by 9%;
  • self-inflicted deaths have risen sharply (91%).

Self-inflicted deaths in public sector prisons have increase in England and Wales

The previous Government was bringing in a raft of prison reforms

The 2016 White Paper announced a range of prison reform
measures, including:

  • greater autonomy for prison governors, together with “sharper” inspection and other scrutiny arrangements;
  • additional funding and 2,500 more prison officers by 2018;
  • more extensive drug testing, including on entry and exit from prison,
    to inform assessments of prison performance;
  • new prison league tables.

Many of the reforms did not require legislation. The Prisons and Courts Bill did contain some reforms, but fell at the General Election. It would have:

  • set out new statutory purposes for prisons;
  • given the Secretary of State a duty to report on the extent to which prisons achieve those purposes;
  • given the Secretary of State a new duty to respond when inspectors
    had significant concerns about prisons;
  • allowed for prisoners to be tested for NPS without each individual substance needing to be specified separately.
What next?

Clearly there are many challenges ahead. Recruiting and retaining sufficient staff to have 2,500 additional prison officers is one of them. The prisons minister, Sam Gyimah, acknowledged in November 2016 that this would mean recruiting 8,000 staff by 2018.

In February 2017, Mr Gyimah said that what the Government was doing would help “in the medium term”; there were some encouraging early signs, but “we will see where we are with the public data later this year”. The next quarterly update to safety in custody statistics is expected in July 2017. Legislation is likely in the next Parliament.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

Image: Prison Row by Trent; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)