European watchdog finds spiralling violence in English prisons

European watchdog finds spiralling violence in English prisons with the main causes overcrowding, poor regimes and under-staffing.

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Serious concerns over lack of safety for inmates and staff

In a report published earlier this week (19 April 2017), the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) raised serious concerns over the lack of safety for inmates and staff in prisons in England.
They identified the main causes as prison violence spiralling out of control, poor regimes and chronic overcrowding.
The report also examines the treatment afforded to patients in a number of psychiatric hospitals. It notes the caring approach by staff in these institutions but is critical of the safeguards concerning forced treatment, the use of force on patients and the use of long-term segregation and night-time confinement in high secure hospitals. Treatment of detained persons by the police and the situation in immigration centres are also covered in the report.

What is the CPT?

The CPT’s purpose is to prevent the ill-treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in Europe.

The CPT organises visits to places of detention, in order to assess how persons deprived of their liberty are treated. These places include prisons, juvenile detention centres, police stations, holding centres for immigration detainees, psychiatric hospitals, social care homes, etc.

CPT delegations have unlimited access to places of detention, and the right to move inside such places without restriction. They interview persons deprived of their liberty in private, and communicate freely with anyone who can provide information.

After each visit, the CPT sends a detailed report to the State concerned. This report includes the CPT’s findings, and its recommendations, comments and requests for information. The CPT also requests a detailed response to the issues raised in its report. These reports and responses form part of the ongoing dialogue with the States concerned.

The CPT’s full title is the “European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”. This highlights two important features: first, it is European, and second, it not only covers “torture”, but also a whole range of situations which could amount to “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

CPT publishes report on its UK visit: criticism levelled at spiralling violence and lack of safety in prisons; and inadequate safeguards to protect patients in mental health settings highlighted


At the bottom of this post, you can find a list of the places of detention visited for this report (5 police stations, 2 immigration detention centres, 3 prisons and 5 secure hospitals).

In the report, the CPT welcomes the recent recognition by the authorities to reform the prison system of England and Wales. Yet, it underlines that unless concrete, determined and swift action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the regime improvements envisaged by the authorities’ reform agenda would remain unattainable.


The CPT is deeply concerned by the amount of severe generalised violence evident in each of the prisons visited, notably inter-prisoner violence and attacks by prisoners on staff. Injuries to both prisoners and staff, documented over a three-month period in the prisons visited, included multiple cases of scalding water being thrown over victims (resulting in severe burns over 10% of the victims’ bodies), ‘shank’ (make-shift knife) wounds, head wounds, broken noses and broken teeth. Injuries frequently required hospitalisation and, in one case, resulted in the death of an inmate. While the number of recorded violent incidents at all prisons visited was alarmingly high, the CPT believes that these figures under-record the actual number of incidents and consequently fail to afford a true picture of the severity of the situation.

Staffing levels

The cumulative effect of certain systemic failings found is that none of the prisons visited could be considered safe for prisoners or staff. The CPT recommends that concrete measures be taken to bring prisons back under the effective control of staff, reversing the recent trends of escalating violence and that a far greater investment in preventing violence be undertaken. In particular, this requires a swift reinforcement of staffing levels to provide for a safe environment for prisoners and staff.


The CPT underlines that many aspects of prison life were being negatively affected by overcrowding in the prison system. The regimes in all prisons visited were inadequate, with a considerable number of prisoners spending up to 22 hours per day locked up in their cells. The situation was particularly bleak for juveniles placed on ‘separation’ lists, who could spend up to 23.5 hours a day locked up alone in their cells.

In the CPT’s view, holding juveniles in such conditions amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.

Findings and data show that juvenile offenders in YOIs have been held alone in conditions akin to solitary confinement for periods of 30 days, 60 days and even, occasionally, up to 80 days. The CPT recommends that juveniles should not be segregated in such conditions, even for the purposes of good order, and instead be placed in small staff-intensive units.

Psychiatric institutions

As regards the psychiatric institutions visited, the CPT’s report recognises the clear dedication of the many mental health professionals working hard to care for the patients under their responsibility.

However, the CPT considers that there are a few areas which require serious reflection and change; notably, consent to treatment safeguards need to be reinforced during the first three months of involuntary placement in a hospital; the powers of the Mental Health Tribunal need to be reinforced and expanded to deal with appeals concerning such issues as consent to treatment, transfers to more secure hospitals, the use of means of restraint and the application of specific treatment measures.

In the high secure hospitals, the CPT is highly critical about the measure of long-term segregation as currently applied and voices misgivings over the use of force deployed to control patients. It also calls for a review of the night time confinement policy in these hospitals. More generally, the report recommends greater efforts are required to recruit and retain registered mental health nurses, whose numbers have decreased by more than 8.5% since 2009, at a time when the number of patients being detained in England is increasing year on year.


I am not clear whether Brexit means that future CPT visits will soon cease. However, the value of exposing our prison system to external examination is clearly evidenced by this hard-hitting report.

We now need to wait and see to what extent the prison reform process is derailed by the general election which seems likely to delay the progress of the Prisons and Courts Bill and may well result in (yet another) new Justice Secretary being appointed.

List of establishments visited

During its 2016 visit, the CPT delegation visited the following places of detention:
Police establishments

  • Brixton Police Station, Metropolitan Police
  • Charing Cross Police Station, Metropolitan Police
  • Paddington Green Police Station, Metropolitan Police
  • Southwark Police Station, Metropolitan Police
  • St Anne’s Police Station, Liverpool, Merseyside Police

Immigration Detention establishments

  • Yarls Wood Immigration Detention Centre
  • Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (targeted visit)

Prison establishments

  • Cookham Wood Young Offender Institution (YOI)
  • HMP &YOI Doncaster
  • HMP Pentonville

Department of Health establishments (psychiatric care)

  • Ashworth High Secure Hospital, Liverpool
  • Broadmoor High Secure Hospital, Berkshire (targeted visit)
  • Chase Farm Hospital, North London Forensic Service, London
  • Highgate Mental Health Centre, London  (targeted visit)
  • St Charles Hospital, London

All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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