UK: Big rise in assault and self-harm incidents at Highpoint Prison prompts call for the number of people in prison to be reduced

Incidents of assault and self harm at Highpoint prison have risen in recent years, amid warnings that England and Wales’ prisons have been asked “to do too much with too little for too long”.

Prison reform charity the Howard League has called for a reduction in the number of prisoners in order to ease immense pressure on the system, following years of declines in the prison workforce. There were 205 cases of assault recorded at Highpoint in 2013, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice. By 2018, this had jumped to 370, an increase of 80 per cent. At the same time, the number of incidents of self-harm increased by 65 per cent, from 247 to 407. In the first three months of 2019 alone, there were 98 assaults and 132 self-harm incidents reported at the prison.

Across England and Wales, the number of assaults more than doubled between 2013 and 2018, to more than 34,000, while the number of self-harm incidents increased from 23,230 to 55,598.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The rising levels of violence and self-injury behind bars are symptoms of the immense strain on a prison system that has been asked to do too much with too little for too long. Cramming more and more people into overcrowded jails has been a recipe for disaster, and the loss of experienced staff has added to the pressure.”

While figures are not available at a local level, national figures reveal that 40 per cent of prison officers in June had less than three years’ service. More than 4,000 prison officers – 15 per cent of the workforce – had been in their posts for less than one year. In 2014, there were only 129 officers with less than a year’s experience.

The prison workforce saw a rapid increase in the prison workforce after 2017, following a significant drop in 2014. There were 33,926 employees working at public sector prisons across the two countries in June this year, up from 31,493 in 2017 but still below the 37,100 seen five years ago. Highpoint has also seen an increase in its prison workforce in recent years.

In June, 511 staff members were employed at the prison, up from 493 in 2018 and 510 six years ago. Of these, 323 were prison officers, compared to 294 in 2018, and 260 in 2013.

Ms Crook continued: “More officers have been recruited, and a larger, refreshed, workforce ought to have a positive impact in the long run, but any recovery will be fragile and short-lived unless we see action to address prison numbers.

“Ultimately, reducing the number of people in prison is the key to protecting staff, saving lives and making the public safer.”

A spokeswoman for the Prison Service said: “We are working hard to reduce levels of self-harm – giving each prisoner support from a dedicated officer, providing mental health training to more than 24,000 staff, and giving the Samaritans £1.5 million to support those most at risk.The number of less experienced staff is simply down to our recruitment of thousands of extra prison officers in recent years, all of whom are supported by more than 10,000 frontline staff who each have over a decade of experience.”

She added that the Government was working hard to retain staff with pay increases and additional training, while equipping officers with tools such as pepper spray and body cameras to make their jobs safer.

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