New Ministry of Justice statistics reveal that in the year up to December 2014 incidents of self-harm and assaults in prisons have increased significantly, revealing a system under serious strain where safety standards have plummeted. Most astonishing is the 35 per cent rise in serious assaults, from 1,588 incidents in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014. Assaults overall increased by 10 per cent, from 14,664 incidents in 2013 to 16,196 in the year up to December 2014.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report of the statistics notes that the increase in assaults primarily occurs amongst adult prisoners (those aged 21 and over), “which has consistently increased since 2010”. This huge drop in safety standards in prisons during the course of this government chimes with the very critical conclusions reached by recent assessments, such as that by Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick in his annual report. Hardwick concluded, “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.
The new statistics also reveal that assaults on staff have increased within the same period, by 11 per cent (from 3,266 incidents in 2013 to 3,637 incidents in 2014), while serious assaults on staff have increased by 33 per cent (from 359 to 477 incidents). These statistics make for very worrying reading, and confirm the findings of the recent independent survey of the wellbeing of prison staff, for the Prison Officers Association (POA). Among the findings of this survey were that none of the benchmarks set by the UK Health and Safety Executive for the management of work related stress had been met, while 60 per cent of the respondents were considering leaving the prison sector in the near future.
Incidents of self-harm among prisoners have also increased by 11 per cent in the year up to December 2014 when compared with the previous year; in 2014 the MoJ data notes that there were 25,775 reported incidents of self-harm, an increase of 2,545 incidents. When disaggregated by gender, the statistics are very alarming. Self-harm by female prisoners accounted for 27 per cent of self-harm incidents in 2014, but female prisoners only made up 5 per cent of the prison population. There were 6,780 incidents of self-harm by female prisoners in 2014, a 13 per cent rise from the number reported in 2013, which was 6,014.
But is not the rise in assaults and self-harm explained solely by the rise in the prison population itself? There has of course been a huge and unsustainable increase in the prison population in recent years, such that in their inquiry into prisons planning and policy, the parliamentary Justice Committee found that at the end of March 2014 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were classified as overcrowded; by December 2014 this had risen to 83 of the 117 prisons.
As well as the direct impact on the conditions in which prisoners live, overcrowding is placing a huge strain on the prison system, particularly as it has occurred while staff numbers have dropped. The Justice Committee found that overcrowding was starting to have “effects on the ability to maintain constructive regimes”, including an increased strain on the availability of training, rehabilitation and other activities to prisoners.
However, the MoJ statistics reveal that while the total number of assault and self-harm incidents have risen, so too have the number of incidents per 1,000 prisoners. For example, the number of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners was 9 per cent higher in 2014 than in 2013, while the number of incidents of assaults and assaults on staff per 1,000 prisoners rose by 9 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. This shows that the rise is not solely due to there being more prisoners.
In their evidence to the Justice Committee inquiry, the POA stated that day-to-day communication between prisoners and officers was “rapidly diminishing, with an inevitably detrimental impact upon security and safety.” In their final report, the Committee concluded that “The Government has been reluctant to acknowledge the serious nature of the operational and safety challenges facing prisons, and the role of its own policy decisions in creating them.”
A final note of caution with the new statistics, is that they refer to reported incidents only. In regard to male prisoners, the MoJ report states that “approximately 5% of male self-harm incidents do not have the prisoner’s details recorded and so the actual number of males self-harming is likely to be higher.”
The time is well overdue for a change in direction for prison policy, to ensure the safety of staff and prisoners, as well as the quality and effectiveness of prison services.
The TUC and justice union-led Speak up For Justice campaign calls for an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system. We call for all prisons and prison services to be in the public sector, and for a review looking at overcrowding, closures and the impacts of privatisation on services and workers.