Six prison homicides in the last year
Last year six prisoners were killed by other prisoners in English and Welsh prisons, the highest annual number in living memory – there was a total of 16 prison homicides in the 10 year period for 2003-2013.
Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman has just (21 September 2016) published the latest issue of the Fatal incidents investigations examining this issue, entitled Homicides — further lessons.
The PPO investigates all deaths in custody and his remit is to examine the circumstances surrounding the death and establish whether anything can be done to help prevent similar tragedies in the future. In December 2013 he published a bulletin which looked at 16 prison homicides investigated from 2003-4 to 2012-13, an average of 1.6 per year. The 2013 bulletin identified a number of concerns, in particular the need to improve the management of risk that vulnerable prisoners pose to one another. It led to operational changes in high security prisons.
In the three years that followed, from 2013-14 to 2015-16, another 13 prisoners were killed by another prisoner or prisoners (an average of 4.3 homicides per year). This bulletin considers the learning from six of those 13 homicides where investigations have been completed, and another two from the beginning of 2013.
The bulletin highlights the need for:
- prisons to have a coordinated approach to identifying indicators and risks of bullying and violent behaviour, including the impact of new psychoactive substances and associated debt, and taking allegations of intimidation seriously;
- prisons to have an effective security and cell-searching strategy, enabling weapons to be found and removed;
- concerns about potentially vulnerable prisoners to be properly recorded and action taken to ensure prisoners are located in a place of safety; and
- the police to be notified without delay when a prisoner appears to have been seriously assaulted, evidence preserved and all prisoners involved in an incident to be held separately until police arrive.
The circumstances of the eight deaths were, for the most part, very different and no evident themes were common to all eight fatalities.
The deaths all occurred at different establishments, from local to medium and high security prisons. In some cases, the perpetrator acted alone, in others there were two perpetrators. Some involved weapons, others strangulation or, in two cases, a punch. In some cases, the victim and perpetrator were cellmates, or knew one another well, in others there was little evidence of previous contact between the victim and his killer.
There was also variation in the outcome of the criminal proceedings. In four of the eight cases, one or more prisoners were convicted of murder, three cases led to manslaughter convictions, and in one case the prisoners concerned were acquitted.
As part of the Ombudsman’s fatal incident investigations, consider was given to whether there was anything that could reasonably have been done to prevent the death. In one case the investigation found that too little consideration was given to events that might have made the victim vulnerable to attack.
In two other cases, the investigations found that it would have been difficult for the prison to have identified that the victim was at particular risk from their attacker, but there were concerns over the lack of a structured and co-ordinated approach to challenging violent behaviour.
In the remaining five investigations, the Ombudsman concluded that it would have been difficult for prison staff to have predicted or prevented the death, even though areas for improvement were still identified in some cases.
In his press release accompanying the report Nigel Newcomen said:
The killing of one prisoner by another in a supposedly secure prison environment is particularly shocking, and it is essential to seek out any lessons that might prevent these chilling occurrences in future.
The cases we studied had little in common beyond their tragic outcome. Nevertheless, what is clear is that the increased number of homicides is emblematic of the wholly unacceptable level of violence in our prisons.
The bulletin does identify a number of areas of learning: the need to better manage violence and debt in prison, not least that associated with the current epidemic of new psychoactive substances; the need for rigorous cell searching to minimise the availability of weapons; the need for careful management of prisoners known to be at risk from others and the need to ensure prisons know how to respond when they have an apparent homicide.