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A Samaritans volunteer, also known as a listener, has a sticker on his cell door in case anyone needs to talk. HMP Kingston.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Small reduction in prison violence

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New prison safety statistics bring a glimmer of hope to our prison crisis with first reductions in assaults & self-harm in last quarter, albeit from record highs.

Prison safety stats

Yesterday (25 April 2019) the MoJ latest quarterly safety in Custody statistics bulletin showed the first indication that there may be some slight improvements in prison safety.

The bulletin covers deaths in prison custody for the year to March 2019 and assaults and self-harm for 2018. As you can see from the main points reproduced below, although the key indicators remain at extremely worrying levels, there are some glimmers of hope.

Incidents of self-harm reached their highest yearly figure ever but were down 7% on the previous quarter. 

Similarly, the number of assault in 2018 was a record high but were down 11% on the previous quarter.

Deaths

In the 12 months to March 2019, there were 317 deaths in prison custody, an increase of 6% from 299 in the previous year, at a rate of 3.8 deaths per 1,000 prisoners. There were 87 apparent self-inflicted deaths, up 19% from 73 in the previous year. Within the female estate, there were 4 self-inflicted deaths, up from 1 self-inflicted
death in the previous 12 months.

There were 3 apparent homicides, down from 5 incidents in the previous year. Homicides in prison custody remain relatively rare, accounting for around 1% of all deaths over the last ten years. There were 164 deaths due to natural causes, a decrease of 11% from 184 in the previous year. 63 deaths were classified as “other”, in many cases waiting for the results from inquests.

Self-harm

In the 12 months to December 2018, there were 55,598 reported incidents of self-harm (a rate of 667 per 1,000 prisoners), up 25% on the previous year. The number of self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance increased by 5% on the previous year to 3,214 while the proportion of incidents that required hospital attendance decreased by 1.1 percentage point to 5.8%. 

The number of prisoners who self-harmed in the 12 months to December 2018 was 12,570 (a rate of 151 prisoners per 1,000), an 8% increase from the previous year. Those that self-harmed did so, on average, 4.4 times, although a small number of prolific self-harmers have a disproportionate impact on this figure.

Assaults

In the 12 months to December 2018, assault incidents increased by 16% to a new record high of 34,223, a rate of 411 incidents per 1,000 prisoners. The number of incidents in male establishments increased by 16% from 28,285 to 32,797 between 2017 and 2018, and the number of incidents in female establishments increased by 20% from 1,190 to 1,426 incidents. In the latest quarter, there were 8,150 assaults, an 11% decrease from the three months to September 2018, but 5% higher than the same quarter of 2017.

There were 24,424 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in 2018 (a rate of 293 per 1,000 prisoners), an increase of 15% from 2017, to a new record high.

There were 10,213 assaults on staff in the 12 months to December 2018 (a rate of 123 per 1,000 prisoners), up 21% from the previous year. This is the highest level in the time series. The proportion of assaults on staff increased to 30% of all incidents in 2018, an increase from 29% in 2017, and a steady increase from 20% between 2008 and 2011.

Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in male establishments rose by 15% to 23,538 incidents from the previous year, and assaults on staff in male establishments rose by 20% in the same period, to 9,665 incidents.

Female prisoner-on-prisoner assaults increased by 10% in 2018, to 886 incidents, and assaults on staff in female establishments increased 48% to 548 incidents. The proportion of assaults on staff (38%) in female establishments was higher than in male establishments (29%).

The latest quarter saw 5,803 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, a decrease of 9% from the previous quarter, and 25% decrease from the same quarter in the previous year. In the latest quarter, there were 2,439 staff assaults, a decrease of 14% on the previous quarter, but a 5% increase on the number of staff assaults on the same quarter in the previous year.

Conclusion

It has been a deeply upsetting task to cover the quarterly Safety in Custody Bulletins as closely as I have done over the last three years. 

Because the data are so recent (up to March for deaths and December last year for self-harm and assaults), I do believe they are the most reliable indicator of the state of our prison system.

The scale of violence in our prisons is disturbing to say the least; the number of assaults have doubled in the ten years from 2008 to 2018.

It is therefore heartening to see the first reduction in both the number of assaults and the number of incidents of self-harm in the last quarter.

These are relatively small decreases from all-time high levels but we must hope that they represent a turning point and a move towards a prison system which is getting safer, rather than more dangerous, every day.

We must wait for the next bulletin (due at the end of July) to see whether we are seeing sustainable improvements.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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