Violence in prisons has hit a record high, according to figures released by the Ministry of Justice. 26,643 assaults took place in 12 months to the end of March, 2017 – a 20 per cent increase on the previous year. The statistics also show that more than 80 inmates escaped or were mistakenly released in the same period. And with the release of more damning reports – including one which calls Pentonville Prison “squalid and inhumane” – it’s clearer than ever that urgent action must be taken to improve our overcrowded, understaffed jails.
Assaults and Self-Harm Soar
Violence behind bars is worse than ever, with 26,643 assaults in a year – more than 7,000 of which were on staff. Approximately 14 per cent of the assaults were classified as serious, and there were a record 805 serious assaults on staff – treble the number recorded in 2013.
There were 97 suicides – a decrease of 10 since the previous year – but the number of self-harm incidents reached a record high of 40,414 – an increase of more than 5,000.
Deaths in prison fell by six, to 316, including two murders, 189 due to natural causes and 25 which have not yet been classified. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the cause of a number of deaths would not be established before inquests were carried out.
‘Government Has Lost Control’
Following the release of the figures, the Liberal Democrats said the government’s underfunding of the prison system had turned jails into “powder kegs”.
Alistair Carmichael, the party’s chief whip, said: “What should be places of rehabilitation are now dangerous hotbeds of violence, self-harm and drug abuse.
“No prison guard should have to go to work in fear of being seriously assaulted while being outnumbered six to one.
“The Government has lost control of our prisons and urgently needs to get a grip.”
According to the Prison Reform Trust, the figures show that the prison system is “nowhere near being safe for those who live and work within it”.
‘Squalid and Inhumane’
Annual performance rankings show that the number of jails with the very lowest rating has risen from six to 10. The lowest-ranked jails, considered causes for “serious concern” are: Bedford, Birmingham, Bristol, Brixton, Guys Marsh, Hindley, Liverpool, Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs.
New reports cast serious doubt on whether conditions are improving. Pentonville Prison, in north London, is described as “squalid and inhumane” in a report by its independent monitoring board. The report highlights blocked toilets, leaking sewage, broken windows and high levels of drug-use.
Meanwhile, a report on Erlestoke Prison, in Wiltshire, identifies debt, bullying, tobacco-smuggling, assault and the availability of drugs as serious problems.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:
“The rising tide of violence and human misery gets higher and higher as chronic overcrowding and staff shortages continue to drive the prison system into chaos.
“How many people have to die before action is taken?”
‘Boosting Frontline Staff is Critical’
The Government has introduced new measured to crack down on the smuggling of drugs and mobile phones into prisons, and launched a recruitment drive to appoint 2,500 new prison officers. Justice Secretary David Lidington said it was his “top priority” to improve safety in prisons.
“These figures reinforce how crucial it is that we make progress as quickly as possible,” he said.
“As the chief inspector of prisons rightly observed in his annual report last week, we cannot achieve successful reform and rehabilitation unless our prisons are safe and secure – and this is something I am committed to achieving.
“I have seen first-hand the challenges our dedicated and hardworking prison staff face. Boosting the frontline is critical to achieving safety and the number of prison officers we are recruiting is rising, with the number of new prison officers joining the service at its highest level since 2010.”