Violence in prisons is ‘spiralling out of control’, reports European human rights watchdog

A prison officer checking on a cell at HMP Wandsworth. Pic by Andy Aitchison from Proof magazine

The UK prison estate is dangerously unsafe, with violence levels ‘spiralling out of control’, according to the Council of Europe. Its committee for the prevention of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment has concluded that ‘systemic failings’ meant that ‘none of the prisons visited could be considered safe for prisoners or staff’.

In an extensive report, the council called on the government to take urgent action to ‘bring prisons back under the effective control of staff’ and ‘reverse the recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths’. The council monitors compliance with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. While recognising the government’s intentions to reform the prison system, it warned that further reform objectives will prove unattainable unless urgent action is first taken to tackle violence and overcrowding.

The government last week dropped the Prisons and Courts Bill to make way for the June 8 snap election. The proposed legislation contained the government’s proposals for a radical overhaul of prisons and was schedule to be debated in its committee stage last week when Theresa May made her announcement. Bob Neil, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons’ justice committee, said that he hoped, if the prime minister wins the election, that the legislation could be reintroduced ‘as a matter of priority’ in the next Parliament.

Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform predicted that the general election would put the reform programme on hold as prisons became increasingly chaotic.  ‘Goodness knows, things could hardly get worse, but the election means that nothing will happen for weeks and then a new justice secretary will want to have a think,’ she blogged. ‘This means we will be in a state of stasis for months.’

The Council of Europe’s visit, the first since 2008, highlighted disturbing levels of inter-prisoner violence and attacks by prisoners on staff. Most alarmingly, their report explored how ‘systemic and structural weaknesses in the documentation process’ of violent episodes was likely to mean that safety levels had declined to even greater depths than those recently detailed in a long line of government Inspectorate reports.

The report also criticised overcrowding, an issue repeatedly highlighted by the Committee since 1990. It highlighted the situation at HMP Pentonville, where rooms designed for one inmate now hold two, as representative of the resource challenges facing the estate. It examined how overcrowding, combined with the challenges posed by deteriorating staff numbers, had led to dramatic declines in purposeful activity and operational safety.

The Committee also condemned the use of segregation units for prisoners with acute mental health issues. It calls for improved mental health training for staff and demands that in-patient prison healthcare units are not used as a substitute for dedicated facilities.

The CPT also raised serious concerns over practise within Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs). In Cookham Wood YOI, the delegation found some juveniles on ‘separation’ lists locked up for up to 23.5 hours, a practice deemed to constitute ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ – see here for coverage of this week’s legal challenge by the Howard League for Penal Reform (here). It also found juveniles held in conditions akin to solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes for periods of up to 80 days. The report condemned the use of segregation in prison, and calls for “the abolition of solitary confinement as a disciplinary sanction in respect of juveniles”.

The Committee also examined conditions in psychiatric hospitals, where concerns were raised over safeguarding and the use of force and long-term segregation. It also criticises the treatment of detained individuals and the indefinite nature of detention in Immigration Removal Centres.


Author: Piers Barber

Piers is presently working for a charity which promotes children’s rights. He was online editor at Not Shut Up, a magazine celebrating prisoner creativity

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