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Prisons Less Safe, Warns Chief Inspector

October 21, 2014, 10:45 am

Financial, population and policy pressures contributed to a significant decline in safety and other outcomes in adult male prisons in the second half of 2013-14 but there were now some tentative signs of improvement, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing his annual report.

Pressures on prisons were very significant in 2013-14:

  • savings included a reduction of £84 million in public sector prison running costs and £88 million as a result of the closure of older prisons and their planned replacement with cheaper places elsewhere. In the short-term, the planned staffing reductions these changes involved resulted in a significant loss of more experienced staff as old prisons closed. This was exacerbated by long-lasting but unplanned vacancies, particularly in London and the South East of England. The staffing reductions followed the ‘Fair and Sustainable programme which changed the role of front-line managers and supervisors, and reduced their number;
  • the total prison population rose from 84,083 at the end of April 2013, which was 96% of the usable operational capacity, to 85,252 at the end of March 2014 which was 99% of the usable operational capacity;
  • a significant policy agenda included plans to transform rehabilitation arrangements, make it harder for prisoners to earn privileges and tighten the rules for temporary release.

The Chief Inspector warned that reports published in 2013-14 showed a significant decline in safety. Safety outcomes for prisoners were worst in adult male local prisons and not good enough in a third of all the prisons inspected in 2013-14. There were often weaknesses in basic safety processes: risk assessments for new prisoners had gaps, too many prisoners in crisis were held in segregation in poor conditions and some prisons were insufficiently focused on tackling violence. The increased availability in prisons of new psychoactive substances, often known as legal highs, was a source of debt and associated bullying and a threat to health.

Inspections that took place in the later part 2013-14 with reports published in 2014-15 revealed a further sharp decline in outcomes across all areas. These inspection findings were reflected in the National Offender Management Services (NOMS) own safety data:

  • the number of assaults involving adult male prisoners increased by 14% on the year before and was the highest for any year for which there is data;
  • there was a 38% rise in the number of serious assaults;
  • the number of incidents at height in adult male prisons increased dramatically, which often involve prisoners clambering onto the netting or railings attached to wing landings in the hope that they will be taken to segregation and then ‘shipped out to somewhere where they feel safer, where the conditions appear better or where they will be closer to home; and
  • of most concern, the number of self-inflicted deaths rose by 69% from 52 in 2012-13 to 88 in 2013-14, the highest figure in 10 years.

The deterioration of outcomes continued well into 2014-15 but by the summer of 2014 there were signs that remedial action had begun to take effect. Population pressures eased slightly as additional accommodation came on stream. Support for safer custody work was strengthened from the centre and staff were sent on detached duty to help those prisons most under pressure. Recruitment was speeded up and some former staff were invited to return. A number of prisons were temporarily placed on restricted regimes.

Nick Hardwick said:

“Increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence cannot be attributed to a single cause. They reflect some deep-seated trends and affect prisons in both the public and private sectors. Nevertheless, in my view, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures, particularly in the second half of 2013-14 and particularly in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor for the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed and that were reflected in NOMS own safety data. The rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths was the most unacceptable feature of this. It is important that the bald statistics do not disguise the dreadful nature of each incident and the distress caused to the prisoners family, other prisoners and staff.”

In many prisons, strong relationships between staff and prisoners mitigated the worst effects of overcrowding and helped make prisons safer than they would otherwise have been. Improvements were made in work, training and education for prisoners in 2013-14, although outcomes declined sharply in the latter part of the year.

Inspections also found that:

  • in contrast to male prisons, womens prisons had made sustainable improvements and almost all outcomes were reasonably good or good;
  • the welcome fall in the number of children in young offender institutions continued, from 1,708 in 2012-14 to 1,334 in 2013-14, however the reduced population is a more concentrated mix of boys with both great vulnerability and sometimes very violent behaviour;
  • women detainees in immigration detention were particularly vulnerable;
  • most short-term holding facilities provided reasonable conditions although child safeguarding procedures needed to be strengthened;
  • the first six-year programme with HM Inspectorate of Constabulary to inspect all places of police custody was completed, and found that physical conditions have improved over time, but the use of force in police custody was still not recorded; and
  • some treatment of detainees in court custody was unacceptable and too often there was no clearly identifiable accountability.

From April 2013 to March 2014, the Inspectorate published 98 individual inspection reports on prisons, police custody suites, immigration removal centres and other custodial establishments. Thematic reports were published, jointly with HM Inspectorate of Probation, on offender management and life sentenced prisoners. A new programme of almost entirely unannounced inspections was introduced. Other developments included:

  • completing the first year of a programme of joint inspections of Secure Training Centres with Ofsted;
  • completing planning for the first inspections of UK Armed Forces Service Custody Facilities, which replaced the old ‘guard houses;
  • revising prison inspection methodology which was published in a new inspection manual;
  • completing the development of inspection standards for womens prisons which will be consistent with the Bangkok Rules, the UN rules on the treatment of women prisoners; and
  • continuing to coordinate the work of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), a group of organisations which independently inspects all places of detention in accordance with the UKs obligation under the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).

 
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