Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Prisons getting even more dangerous

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Latest prison safety figures see a welcome drop in suicides but the worst ever figures for violence and self-harm.

Violence & self-harm up, suicides down

Thursday’s (25 January 2018) Safety in Custody Statistics continue the trend from the last quarter with a welcome reduction in the number of suicides, particularly of women prisoners more than offset by yet another rise in the number of assaults and incidents of self-harm.

The latest figures cover deaths for the year to December 2017 and assaults and self harm for the year to September 2017.

Here are the main points:

Safety in Custody Statistics

The figures for self-harm, prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on staff assaults have all reached a record high.


Further detail on these depressing figures is set out below.


There were 70 apparent self-inflicted deaths, down 43% from 122 in the previous year. On a rate basis this is 0.8 instances per 1,000 prisoners. Within the female estate, there were 2 self-inflicted deaths at a rate of 0.5 per 1,000 prisoners, down from 12 incidents in the previous 12 months. There were 3 apparent homicides, the same as the previous year. Homicides in prison custody remain relatively rare, accounting for around 1% of all deaths over the last ten years. There were 184 deaths due to natural causes, a decrease of 10% from 204 in the previous year. Natural-cause deaths were at a rate of 2.1 per 1,000 prisoners.

Self Harm

The quarterly rate of incidents continued to increase in the three months to September 2017 to a record high of 11,904 incidents (up 10% on the previous quarter), 807 of which required hospital attendance, also the highest figure in the time series. The number of prisoners who self-harmed in the 12 months to September 2017 was 11,248 (a rate of 131 prisoners per 1,000), up 4% from the previous year. Those that self-harmed did so, on average, 3.8 times, although a small number of prolific self-harmers have a disproportionate impact on this figure. The majority of those who self-harm in prison do so only once a year.


In the 12 months to September 2017, there were 3,726 serious assaults, up 10% on the previous year, and the highest level in the time series. Of these, 2,961 (or 79%) were serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, up 11% on the previous year and also a record high. Over the same period, there were 787 serious assaults on staff, up 3% on the previous year. In the latest quarter, there were 999 serious assaults, up 4% on the three months to June 2017, and a new record high. Of these, 799 (or 80%) were serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults (up 4% to a new record high), and 211 were serious assaults on staff (up 3%


Not only are do these quarterly figures continue to shock and appall, but they remain (in my opinion) the best barometer of the overall state of our prison system, recently underlined by the inspection of HMP Liverpool where experienced prison inspectors witnessed the worst conditions they had ever seen and the Chief Prison Inspector’s decision to invoke the urgent notification procedure because of serious concerns at HMP Nottingham. 

 Only when we see a prolonged trend in the fall of self-harm and assaults will we be able to feel confident that our prisons are beginning to become a more acceptable place for prisoners to live and staff to work.

[Thanks to Cindy Tang for use of the header image.]

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Everything you want to know about prisons…

Prisons can be an emotive subject and it’s important that governments, researchers, policy makers, pressure groups and others all base their views on the facts.

The Ministry of Justice publishes a range of regular statistical bulletins and reports with up-to-date information, often underpinned by publicly available datasets. 

These can, however, not always be straightforward to access if you’re not used to MoJ systems.

Therefore, I’ve constructed this compendium of prison information which will be updated when the latest statistics are published.

You can either browse the whole collection of slides (see further down this page) or follow the links in the bullet points below to go to individual charts.


If you can’t see the visualisation below on your device, you can find it here.

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