2017 must bring change, or more violence will follow.
2016 has shown the British public something that those working in and with the prison sector have known for some time – our prison system is at breaking point.
December’s riots at HMP Birmingham – dubbed the ‘worst riot since Strangeways’ – was the culmination of a year of unrest in our detainment centres. In October 2016, prison inmate Jamal Mahmoud was stabbed and killed at Pentonville, the same prison that two weeks later saw two prisoners escape and spark a London-wide manhunt. Bedford Prison was subject to a 200-prisoner riot in November that resulted in £1 million of damage, in the same week that an inmate’s throat was cut with a razor at HMP Isle of Wight.
The geographic spread of prison related incidents shows us that this is not just a London-based issue, but a problem for the entire system. Prison Officers, on the front line of our justice system, are bearing the brunt on falling conditions and increased violence against staff in the service. As shadow Justice Minister Jo Stevens commented last year, ‘fifteen assaults on prison staff every single day cannot continue.’
The numbers game
Ministry of Justice figures show that while the population of prisoners in England and Wales has remained relatively constant since 2010, the number of prison officers has seen a steady decline. The total number of full-time prison staff (prison and supervising officers, custodial and other managers) has reduced by 10,000 people – almost 30% of the workforce. The same figures also show that the number of assaults on prison staff has risen from 34 per 1000 inmates to 50 per 1000 since 2010, and that there are now over two more prisoners per members of staff than in 2010.
In November, 10,000 members of the Prison Officer Union (POA) went on strike in protest due to the “continued surge in violence and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self-harm”. Added to this, the union argued that both the growth in escapees and the increase in violence between inmates “demonstrate that the service is in meltdown”. It’s a similar story outside of the prison walls, where authorities are failing to track and incarcerate former inmates that have broken their bail conditions. In June last year 1341 inmates were still at large – 42 of which were sex offenders and 177 of which had been committed for violent crimes.
What next for the prison service?
In November the Government was successful in achieving a High Court injunction to stop the prison officers from striking – frustrating their union and halting the industrial action. Despite this affront to the Union’s stand for officer safety, Justice Secretary Liz Truss has promised a further £1.3 billion investment to modernise British prisons, to introduce an additional 2500 prison officers, and to give more freedom to prison governors to run their prisons as they wish. The Justice Secretary has also promised to implement a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on assaults on Prison Officers and to increase the use of body-mounted cameras.
Nick Hardwick, the England and Wales Parole Board Chairman has said that training the staff will take ‘too long’ and that there is only ‘a small window’ in which to act. He has also argued that “we [the UK] are not prepared to pay for the size of the prison population that we now have, so the balance between the prison population and the number of staff that we’ve got is now unworkable”.
With scenes like Bedford, Pentonville, Birmingham and Hull in 2016, many will feel that Liz Truss had no choice when announcing increases in investment and staff numbers. As a legal firm with extensive experience of representing prison officers, we will be watching how the proposed changes are implemented in 2017 and beyond. Are the Government’s actions too little too late? That remains to be seen.
If you are a prison officer who has been assaulted or mistreated while at work, read our guide on how to claim or call one of our specialist legal team today on: