The impact of overcrowding and under-staffing
Readers will be more than familiar with the chronic overcrowding in our prison system and the recent emergency measures that the government has had to institute to tackle them. The early release provision and other measures have succeeded in reducing the number of people inside by 424 people to 87,801 over the last two weeks. (You can see my post tracking the prison population over the last four years here)
However, the overcrowding does not just mean cramped conditions for people in prison but has an impact on the whole prison regime. The scale of that impact was vividly illustrated by last Thursday’s Safety in Custody Statistics which cover Deaths in Prison Custody to September 2023 and Assaults and Self-harm to June 2023. Because these statistics are published on a quarterly basis and so swiftly after the period they cover, they are one of the most reliable barometers of prison conditions.
The latest edition makes for grim reading.
Deaths in custody
In the 12 months to September 2023, there were 304 deaths in prison custody, a slight fall of 1% from 307 deaths in the previous 12 months. Of these, 92 deaths were self-inflicted, a substantial 24% increase from the 74 self-inflicted deaths in the previous 12 months. In the most recent quarter there were 75 deaths, a worrying 23% increase from 61 deaths in the previous quarter.
There were 64,348 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to June 2023, again a significant rise of 21% from the previous 12 months, comprising of an 8% increase in male establishments and a horrifying 65% increase in female establishments. Over the same period, the rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners, which takes account of the increase in the prison population between this and the previous year and essentially means that we are comparing like with like, rose 3% in male establishments and rocketed by 63% in female establishments. In the most recent quarter, there were 17,729 self-harm incidents, up 7% on the previous quarter, comprising a 16% increase in male establishments and a small if welcome 11% decrease in female establishments.
A total of 11,760 individuals self-harmed in the 12 months to June 2023, up 7% from the previous 12 months. The number of self-harm incidents per individual increased from 4.8 in the 12 months to June 2022 to 5.5 in the 12 months to June 2023, demonstrating that there are many severely troubled and vulnerable people in our prisons who would be much more appropriately care for within a mental health setting.
Unfortunately, the bad news persists across all three main topics covered by these statistics. In the 12 months to June 2023, the rate of assaults was 285 assaults per 1,000 prisoners (again a scarcely believable number 23,557 assaults), up 9% from the 12 months to June 2022. In the most recent quarter, assaults were up 9% to 6,560 incidents and the assault rate was up 6% to 78 assaults per 1,000 prisoners.
The rate of assaults on staff has also worsened. In the same 12 month period, the rate of assaults on staff was 96 assaults per 1,000 prisoners, representing nearly 8,000 (7,908) assaults on staff, up just 1% on the previous year. However, in the latest quarter (march to June this year) the number of assaults on staff increased by 13% to 2,222 incidents.
Finally, the rate of serious assaults over the last year was 33 serious assaults per 1,000 prisoners (2,704 serious assaults), up by a very considerable 16% from the 12 months to June 2022. The rate of serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults increased 23% to 24 per 1,000 prisoners (1,986 incidents), and the rate of serious assaults on staff remained broadly stable at 9 per 1,000 prisoners (748 incidents) in the 12 months to June 2023.
We must hope that the reductions in prison population continue and the current prison officer recruitment drive succeed in the hope that the next edition of these statistics (published next January) will show a fall in these critical numbers.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here