United Kingdom: decline in prison safety standards and lack of staffing "seriously hampering" inmate rehabilitation, report finds

“Perfect storm” of staffing issues, increased use of psychoactive substances and crumbling infrastructure across prison estate could be jeopardising public safety, expert warns.

A decline in safety and a loss of experienced staff in jails is *“seriously hampering” * the rehabilitation of prisoners, a new report has warned.

The chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB), which inspect prisons across England and Wales, suggested a “perfect storm” of staffing issues, increased use of new psychoactive substances and crumbling infrastructure across the prison estate had led to a situation where public safety was being jeopardised.

Dame Anne Owers’s annual report on adult prisons found that staffing issues had “dominated” inspections over the past year, with concerns repeatedly raised about the safety implications of a “high proportion of inexperienced young staff”.

At four prisons Brixton, Winchester, Lincoln and Nottingham half of the officers had less than a year in the service, while at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, inspectors reported that many members of staff were “scarcely older than the prisoners they were looking after”.

Dame Anne said the “churn” in staff was largely to blame for the surge in violence and self-harm that has been recorded across jails in recent years, with new officers lacking the confidence to set boundaries and deal with difficult situations, as well as form positive interactions with prisoners.

The report found staffing issues had also led to expensive facilities in the prison estate being “woefully underused”, and education and training opportunities being rendered less effective, due to a shortage in officers to escort inmates to different parts of the prison.

At one prison, HMP Whitemoor, nearly half of scheduled education hours were cancelled, 75 per cent of them due to staff shortages.

The Independent revealed last month that the total cumulative length of service among prison officers has plummeted by a quarter since 2010, dropping from 329,353 years in 2010 to 248,008 in 2018.

The number of officers leaving the role surged from 596 to 1,244 in the two years to 2018 an increase of 109 per cent with one in 16 officers resigning last year, compared with one in 33 officers two years before and just one in 100 in 2009/10.

Rates of self-harm and violence, meanwhile, have hit record levels each year since 2012, with prisons in England and Wales now witnessing an assault every 20 minutes on average and a prisoner taking their own life every four days.

Dame Anne said: “There is no question that IMBs are still reporting some serious and ongoing problems in prisons. The decline in safety, conditions and purposeful activity in prisons over the last few years has seriously hampered their ability to rehabilitate prisoners.”

“This will take time to reverse, and will require consistent leadership and management both in the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice, as new staff, policies and resources bed in.”

She added: “We need to ask whether prisons are creating an environment where prisoners want to improve and change the way they have been, or actually creating an environment where inmates have more access to drugs and are more frightened.”

“We need our prisons to be places where positive things happen for prisoners, otherwise negative things do happen. It’s about public protection in the end. Prisons must create an environment that makes the public safe.”

The report also noted there had been a rise in the use of force on prisoners and that there was often inconsistent recording or delays in paperwork on this. At Exeter prison, for example, no paperwork had been submitted for the majority of incidents.

Dame Anne expressed “serious concern” about the availability of drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances, which was putting pressure on an already stretched healthcare services.

Commenting on the findings, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the report would make for “very sobering reading” for the new prisons minister, Robert Buckland.

“There can be no disputing the first hand, directly observed evidence of over 51,000 individual visits to prisons,” he added. “The report describes a catalogue of failures to deliver even the most basic standards of care and a chronic waste of human and physical resources in our prison system.”

“IMBs are telling ministers that a vast amount of work remains to be done to reform our prisons. They deserve to be properly supported in that vital task, and properly listened to.”

Mr Buckland said in response to the findings: “I want to thank members of IMBs across England and Wales for their continued dedication, commitment and hard work.”

“I recognise the board’s concerns and we are tackling the issues raised head on. Over the last year, we have invested more than £70m to get more officers on the landings, disrupt organised crime and improve security, and as the report notes, we are starting to see some positive results.”

“The steps we are taking will ensure that we have safer, more secure prisons that steer offenders away from crime, offer them the best chance of securing employment on release and ultimately keep the public safe by reducing reoffending.”

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