Policy pressures, overcrowding and staff shortages cause decline in prison safety – says Chief Inspector Prisons in Annual Report

The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales has released its independent annual report into the state of prisons, for 2013-2014, based on a series of inspections. One of the key conclusions of Nick Hardwick, the current Chief Inspector, is that a lack of resources, overcrowding as well as policy pressures have significantly contributed to the rise in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence in prisons.

In the report, Hardwick states that ‘it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures…was a very significant factor in the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed.’ This conclusion is reflected, Hardwick noted, in safety data collected by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The report notes the significant increase in the prison population to above projections to 85,952 by 28 March 2014 (99% of the ‘usable operational capacity’ – a year previously it stood at 96%). Nick Hardwick also noted the budget reductions carried out by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which has included a reduction of 4% in public sector prison running costs as well as other savings, such as those achieved through the closure of older prisons and the setting up of cheaper newer ones.

One of the outcomes of such budget reductions was noted as a ‘significant loss of experienced staff’ as a result of the closure of older prisons, while new prisons had inexperienced staff which has led those prisons to struggle. These staffing changes and reductions were exacerbated by ‘significant, long-lasting but unplanned vacancies, particularly in London and the South East.’ Loss of staff on this scale has followed previous reductions in staff as a result of policy that changed the role of front-line managers and supervisors, changed their number ‘and sometimes allocated them to individuals who were unfamiliar or unhappy with their new responsibilities’.

We have blogged previously about the embarrassment faced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), when they tried to re-employ 2,000 prison officers who had taken voluntary redundancy previously. The government increased the operational capacity of prisons earlier this year, despite criticism from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prison Officers Association and others about overcrowding and staff shortages.

The report notes that the inspections that have taken place most recently have shown a sharp decline in assessment against expected outcomes, which is a ‘great cause for concern’. Safety was noted as worst among adult male local prisons, and not good enough in a third of all prisons. Further issues alluded to were that prisons had inadequate safety processes and critical risk assessments, which chimes with recent investigations by the Guardian newspaper.

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For the report, please see HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons (2014) Annual Report 2013-2014 (HM Government).

For a Guardian article on the report, please see Bowcott, O. ‘Rise in prison suicides blamed on staff shortages as inmate numbers grow‘, The Guardian, 21 October 2014.



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