New statistics released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reveal that 267 people have died in prisons in England and Wales in the 12 months up to the end of September 2015, an increase of 33 compared to the 12 months ending December 2014. This number includes seven homicides, which was more than double the number recorded in any year since 2006. The POA has called these figures the “worst security and safety results in a decade”, and is seeking urgent meetings with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
The new figures reveal a system spiraling out of control. The POA note in their press release that they have “consistently challenged budget cuts, staff shortages and the serious increase in prison violence and suicides”, but the government has not listened. Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the The Howard League for Penal Reform has stated of the new figures, “It is surely evident that people are dying as a result of the cuts to the number of staff, particularly more experienced staff, in every prison…Radical reform is required, or the human cost of our failing prisons will continue to rise.”
We have blogged previously about the shocking rise in assaults and self-harm in prisons, revealing a system under serious strain where safety standards have plummeted. Between 2013 and 2014, the MoJ statistics then revealed a 35 per cent rise in serious assaults in prisons in England and Wales (from 1,588 incidents in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014), while assaults overall increased by 10 per cent (from 14,664 incidents in 2013 to 16,196 in the year up to December 2014). Assaults on staff also increased by 11 per cent in this period.
The MoJ’s recent safety in custody bulletin revealed that the number of self-harm incidents recorded in prisons in England and Wales increased by 21 per cent to 28,881 in the 12 months to the end of June 2015. This was up 13 per cent from the 12 months ending June 2014. There was also a 34 per cent increase in serious assaults (at 2,480), and a 13 per cent increase in assault incidents (at 17, 581, having risen from 15, 548), as well as a 20 per cent increase in assaults on staff (at 4, 156, having risen from 3, 458 incidents), compared with the 12 months ending June 2014.
Though the MoJ do note that changes to quality assurance processes in 2013 led to improved reporting of assaults, the fact that the statistics for assaults, self-harm and deaths in custody are very high and rising is shocking. The fact that the new figures are the worst in a decade is extremely worrying and should raise serious questions about the state of our penal system. The rapid decline in safety in prisons has also been laid squarely at the door of the government. In his annual report for 2014-15, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick noted, “It remains my view that staff shortages, overcrowding and the wider policy changes described in this report have had a significant impact on prison safety.”
As we have blogged previously, the rise in assaults and self-harm cannot be explained solely by the rise in the prison population (although overcrowding has created significant pressures on the system). The number of assaults and self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners rose between 2013 to 2014, and has risen again between 2014 and 2015 as the new figures reveal, in some areas significantly so.
In his annual report for 2014-15, prisons inspector Nick Hardwick found that between March 2010 and December 2014 there had been a 29 per cent cut in the number of full-time staff of all grades and roles in public sector prisons in England and Wales. While staff numbers have plummeted, prisoner numbers have skyrocketed; the Prison Reform Trust report that at the end of March 2015 70 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. In their report into prisons planning and policy in March 2015, the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, “We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes.”
The POA are calling on new Justice Secretary of State Michael Gove MP to stop, listen and learn from those who work day in day out within the criminal justice system. The evidence of a link between ill-thought through and wrong-headed government policies and dramatic cuts, with a significant decline in safety and standards in prisons, has been stockpiling since 2010 from a number of sources. The TUC and justice sector union-led Speak up for Justice campaign calls for 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.