Violence and self-harm in prisons are “unacceptably high”, the Justice Secretary has admitted, after official figures revealed both have surged again to reach new record levels – and calls for his Prisons Minister Rory Stewart to resign intensify
David Gauke acknowledged the latest official safety in custody statistics for England and Wales were “disturbing” after they showed increases across all of the key categories.
In the year to September, there were 33,803 assault incidents, up 20% on the previous 12 months.
Of those, nearly 4,000 were recorded as “serious” – such as those which require medical treatment or result in fractures, burns, or extensive bruising.
Assaults on staff also continue to rise, reaching record highs.
They increased by 29% year on year, to 10,085, including 997 which were serious, although the Ministry of Justice said a change in the way these figures are recorded may have contributed to the jump.
There were 52,814 self-harm incidents, a 23% increase, and a new record high, according to the MoJ’s report.
It also revealed there were 325 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to December 2018, up 10% from the previous year. Of these, four were homicides.
Mr Gauke said: “Violence and self-harm in our prisons is unacceptably high and these figures underline why we are spending an extra £70m to fight the drugs plaguing prisons and boost security, while also training over 4,000 new prison officers in handling the complex offender population.
“Clearly there is a huge amount yet to be done but I am determined to cut the violence so prisons can focus on rehabilitating the offenders who will be back out at some point.
“And while these figures are disturbing, I am optimistic that the measures we have been putting in place will help us to reduce violence and ultimately better protect the public.”
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon claimed cuts to staff and budgets were “directly to blame for violence spiralling out of control in our prisons”.
He said: “Our prisons have become a danger to officers, inmates and wider society.”
The Government has come under sustained pressure in recent years over the state of jails after a safety crisis swept through much of the estate.
The new statistics show the overall number of assaults has more than doubled in the last four years.
While the vast majority of the incidents are recorded in male establishments, female prisons have also registered an increase in assaults, with 1,396 in the 12 months to September – the highest number for an equivalent period in the last decade.
Ministers say drugs, and psychoactive substances – formerly known as legal highs – have been a “game changer” in destabilising prisons.
Ahead of the latest findings, the Government announced that new scanning equipment that can detect invisible traces of illicit substances soaked into clothing and paper is up and running in 10 of the most challenging jails.
Mr Stewart has also suggested that jail sentences of six months or less for most crimes could be scrapped to alleviate pressure on the system.
The Press Association revealed on Thursday that prisons have been issued with detailed guidance on handling incoming mail following a surge in attempts to smuggle in drug-laced paper and other contraband via post.
An official security briefing says correspondence is being exploited to convey illicit substances and items into establishments, with instances reported in all prison regions.
Mark Day, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “These disturbing figures show every indicator of prison safety to be pointing the wrong way, with a rise in numbers of natural and self-inflicted deaths and record levels of self-harm and assaults.
“The measures the Government have put in place to improve prison safety, including increasing staff numbers and the roll-out of a new key worker model, have not yet succeeded in reversing this rising trend.”
Andrew Neilson, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Ministers have announced their intention to reform sentencing, and the harrowing statistics published today show why action is needed so urgently.”
Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook, was scathing about Rory Stewart, calling him ‘hapless and hopeless’.
Mr Leech said: “Over the last six to eight months Rory Stewart our Prisons Minister has spent night and day tweeting about what?
“Deaths in custody?
“Assaults on staff and prisoners?
“He has spent his time tweeting about Brexit – don’t take my word for it go and look at his twitter account.
“He’s the Prisons Minister, yet to watch him you’d think he was the Brexit Secretary.
“Sure he’s a nice guy, pleasant sociable, fun at times – but let me tell you this: as a Prisons Minister he’s both hapless and hopeless – he promised to resign, now let us see him live up to his word and just do it.
“Put control of our prisons, its policies, its recruitment, its funding, its staffing back where it belongs, inside HMPPS and those who actually know what a cell door looks like.”