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Prison safety: action plan needed to reverse rapid deterioration

16 May 2016

The Justice Committee publishes their report on prison safety, concluding that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) must produce an action plan for improving prison safety, addressing the factors underlying the rises in violence, self-harm and suicide.

Scope of the report

The most recent safety in custody statistics and the data for the previous quarter show higher rates of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assaults than in the corresponding previous 12 months, and ongoing significant growth in the number of assaults and self-harm incidents:

  • Assaults rose 20% in the 6 months to December 2015 compared to the preceding 6 months. There were 2,690 assaults against staff in the six months to December 2015, an increase of 18% compared to the previous 6 months.
  • Since January 2015 each quarter there have been over 150 serious assaults between prisoners. A prison officer working for Serco, Lorraine Barwell, tragically died in July 2015 after being attacked by a prisoner she was escorting from court.
  • In the 12 months to March 2016 there were 100 self-inflicted deaths – up from 79 in the previous year.
  • According the Prison Officers' Association, deployment of tactical intervention teams from the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) – which attends incidents at height, incidents of hostage taking and incidents of concerted indiscipline – have reached “unprecedented levels” of 30 to 40 times a month.
  • There were 1,935 fires in adult prisons and young offender establishments in 2015, a 57% increase on 2014.

In addition to the influx of new psychoactive substances, which has had a significant impact on the working of the prison economy, Mr Selous, the Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation, attributed the decline in safety to a more challenging mix of prisoners, and a higher than anticipated prison population at a time when staffing numbers had been reduced.

These factors were already present at the time of the previous Justice Committee's inquiry into prisons: planning and policies in 2014-15, so may not fully explain the ongoing and significant deterioration in safety.

Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service

The MoJ and NOMS have sought to improve prison safety through a wide range of legislative, operational and staff recruitment measures, including the creation of new offences of possession of new psychoactive substances and knife possession in prison and action to address violence through the use of body work cameras and to improve safeguarding procedures.  But despite these efforts, and those of staff in prisons to keep prisoners and themselves secure and unharmed, overall levels of safety in prison have continued to fall.

Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill MP said:

"The Ministry hoped that prison safety would stabilise. In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so. This is a matter of great concern and improvement is urgently needed.

We will examine the details of the Government's ambitious penal reform agenda in due course. But this cannot wait. It is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and disorder. Without such action, the implementation of these wider reforms will be undermined."

Staffing levels

On the basis that prison safety is reliant on dynamic security—staff-prisoner relationships—our predecessor Committee believed that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards was that a significant number of prisons had been operating with staffing levels below those needed to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes. Minister Andrew Selous confirmed to us that the 2,250 extra prison officers recruited when the Ministry went “full throttle with a major recruitment programme” in 2015 had resulted in a net gain of only 440 officers but was unable to tell us how far short of a full complement of staff public sector prisons were operating.

Thirty-nine percent of those who left in the past year resigned, suggesting a continuing problem with retention.

The Committee received evidence from the Prison Officers' Association, which does not believe that recruitment has kept pace with demand or need. Noting that there were 7,000 fewer officers than in 2010 when the prison population was 2,500 lower, the POA believes that budget cuts and resulting reductions in staffing are intrinsically linked to the increase in violence, deaths and suicides.

Bob Neill said:

"There is a serious and deep-rooted issue of staff retention by NOMS. The factors underlying this issue are we suspect not fully understood by NOMS and are clearly not being adequately addressed. It is vital that they get a grip of this urgently to prevent further waste of resources on large scale recruitment drives."


The Committee recommends that the MoJ and NOMS together produce an action plan for improving prison safety, addressing the factors underlying the rises in violence, self-harm and suicide, and including both preventative measures and punitive ones. The plan should also set out the action NOMS is taking with regard to recruitment and retention of prison staff as well as the implementation of the Corruption Prevention Strategy to address the apparent lack of observance of professional standards by some officers

The Committee also wishes to receive quarterly reports from the Government over the remainder of this Parliament, reporting on progress against the action plan and including for the purposes of greater transparency other key indicators of prison disorder not currently included in those statistics—in particular on volumes of emergency responses and serious and potentially serious incidents—as well as more timely prison performance data.

Having heard at HMP Wandsworth that prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day the Committee further asks for the number of hours each day prisoners spend locked in their cells on average at each prison.

Further information

Image: Ministry of Justice