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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Our prisons still getting more dangerous

The new prison safety statistics sadly show that the epidemic of violence and self-harm continues to get worse.

Self-harm and assaults reach new highs

Safety in custody statistics

The latest safety in Custody statistics bulletin published last Thursday (26 July 2018) confirm the deteriorating state of our prisons which shows no sign of reversing despite the abating. The figures cover deaths in prison custody for the year to June 2018 and assaults and self-harm for the year to March 2018.

As you can see from the main points reproduced below, all the key indicators are at extremely worrying levels.

Despite a decrease in the number of suicides (down from 99 to 77, although this figure itself is likely to be revised upwards with 54 deaths waiting further information before being classified), incidents of self-harm, assaults on staff and on prisoners all reached highest ever levels. Indeed almost one in seven (13.9%) prisoners harmed themselves last year.

The worst news of all in this statistical bulletin is the warning that: “Audits of prison data quality have revealed some under-reporting in assaults and self-harm incidents.”

So even the worst prison safety figures ever almost definitely under-estimate the real picture.

Deaths

In the 12 months to June 2018, there were 310 deaths in prison custody, a decrease of 2% from 316 in the previous year, at a rate of 3.7 deaths per 1,000 prisoners. The most recent quarter saw the number of deaths decrease to 80, down 5 from the three months to March 2018. Quarterly death figures should be considered with caution due to greater volatility and the potential for seasonal effects.

There were 77 apparent self-inflicted deaths, down 22% from 99 in the previous year. On a rate basis this is 0.9 instances per 1,000 prisoners in the 12 months to June 2018. Within the female estate, there were 3 self-inflicted deaths at a rate of 0.8 per 1,000 prisoners during this period, down from 6 self-inflicted deaths in the previous 12 months.

There were 5 apparent homicides, up from 2 incidents in the previous year. Homicides in prisoncustody remain relatively rare, accounting for around 1% of all deaths over the last ten years.

There were 173 deaths due to natural causes, a decrease of 11% from 195 in the previous year. Natural-cause deaths were at a rate of 2.0 per 1,000 prisoners.

Self-harm

In the 12 months to March 2018, there were 46,859 reported incidents of self-harm (a rate of 549 per 1,000 prisoners), up 16% from the previous year. The number of self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance increased by 12% to 3,095. The proportion of incidents that required hospital attendance decreased by 0.3 percentage point to 6.6%.

On a quarterly basis, the number of incidents in the three months to March 2018 increased to 12,045 (up 2% on the previous quarter), 729 of which required hospital attendance. The number of prisoners who self-harmed in the 12 months to March 2018 was 11,854 (a rate of 139 prisoners per 1,000), up 8% from the previous year, and the highest figure in the time series. Those that self-harmed did so, on average, 4.0 times, although a small number of prolific self-harmers have a disproportionate impact on this figure.

Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender, with a rate of 467 incidents per 1,000 in male establishments (with incidents up 14% from the previous year) compared to a rate of 2,244 incidents per 1,000 in female establishments (an increase of 24% in the number of incidents from the previous year). In the 12 months to March 2018, the number of self-harm incidents per self-harming male increased from 3.4 in the previous year to 3.6, while self-harm prolificacy among females increased from 6.2 in the previous year to 7.3 incidents per self-harming individual.

Assaults

There were 22,374 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the 12 months to March 2018 (a rate of 262 per 1,000 prisoners), up 16% from the previous year, and a new record high. The latest quarter saw 5,901 incidents, an increase of 6% from the previous period. 

There were 9,003 assaults on staff in the 12 months to March 2018 (a rate of 106 per 1,000 prisoners), up 26% from the previous year. This is the highest level in the time series. In the latest quarter, staff assaults increased by 4% to a new record high of 2,427 incidents. There has been a change in how staff assaults have been recorded since April 2017. This has simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents.

Conclusion

Every time the prison safety statistics are published, I hope that they will at least indicate the start of a trend of less violence in our prisons and a sign that living and working in prison is becoming less of a daily ordeal. 

Every time, I am disappointed, confronted by the evidence that our prisons crisis is getting worse every day. Unlike many statistics, prison safety data are published swiftly, only four months after the period they describe.

I know that many are working hard to improve life in custody, but until these figures on the daily violence (an average of 128 incidents of self-harm and 85 assaults every single day) improve significantly, their task will be an uphill one.

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