Our prisons are at ‘breaking point’ as a result of over-crowding, staff cuts and closures, according to a new report by the Howard League for Penal Reform out today. The report (Breaking point: Understaffing and overcrowding in prisons PDF) revealed that the number of frontline officers had dropped dramatically – in a number of prisons there had been a 50% cut in personnel between 2010 and 2013 – which had exacerbated the problems of overcrowding.
According to the Howard League, the most severe consequence of prison overcrowding was the increased number of suicides. Between 2012 and 2013, self-inflicted deaths rose by 23%.
In the first few months of 2014, 29 people had taken their own lives. The number of prison assaults was 25% higher in 2013 than 2012, and assaults on staff members are at an all-time high. Rioting is now rife, with a 72% increases in the number of calls to the National Tactical Response Group. To decrease staff numbers is to disarm the remaining staff.
‘The prison system is at breaking point,’ commented Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League. ‘Ministers and various MPs have used different figures to try to minimise the impact of prison closures, but the statistics in this report show the true picture.’ Violence and drug use was ‘out of control and we will all suffer the consequences’, Crook said. ‘This is the most irresponsible government penal policy in a generation.’
The prison officers’ union, the POA, has raised concerns over ‘the link between staff reductions and the increased level of violence, self-inflicted injuries, deaths, poor regimes and acts of indiscipline in our prisons’. ‘The POA welcome the report and findings and call on the Minister to act quickly to ensure prisons are safe secure and fit for purpose,’ it said.
Between 2010 and 2013, the number of frontline prison officers in English and Welsh prisons dropped by 30% from 27,650 to 19,325. Bristol, Durham, Liverpool and Nottingham prisons were amongst the worst affected.
The most severe decreases were in Category C prisons – including Brixton, with a 43% reduction and High Point, with a 34% reduction. The Ministry of Justice has proposed that Category C prisons would form the majority of ‘resettlement prisons’ as part of its proposals to reduce reoffending.
High security prisons were also badly hit: Wakefield saw a 31% reduction and Belmarsh 30%. A key finding was that the mass reduction in prison officers was not as a consequence of a decrease in the prison population – in fact, as of 11 April 2014, the prison population was greater than in May 2010 by 255 prisoners.
The study revealed that significant increases in the number of prisoners was rarely supported by an increased number of staff. Bure, High Point, Nottingham and Sheppey Cluster prisons were amongst the worst affected. This overcrowding problem was exacerbated by closures, which have resulted in the loss of almost 6,500 places. Since 2010 there have been 18 prison closures, two partial closures and three prisons have been earmarked for closure. Those which have been earmarked represent an additional 700 prison places under threat. With the total loss anticipated to be at over 7,000 places, the report expressed unease at the consequences overcrowding is having on prison life, now and in the future.