Labour Research August 2018


No end in sight to prisons safety crisis

Labour Research examines the chaos in Britain’s jail system and finds the conditions are also taking a severe toll on the prison workforce.

The crisis in our jails has reached a point where Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, has said he fears some inmates have killed themselves rather than face the prospect of serving out their sentences. 

In May 2018, Clarke said he feared some prisoners had taken their own lives at Nottingham prison and young offenders institute because they could no longer face being held in a “dangerous, disrespectful and drug-ridden” jail. There were eight apparent self-inflicted deaths at the prison between inspections in February 2016 and January 2018. 

The following month, he reported that 19 prisoners had taken their own lives at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes over a seven-year period.

His 2016-17 annual report provides a shocking picture of a crisis extending well beyond these two jails. He reports, for example, that 30% of young adults (aged 18 to 21) being held in adult establishments said they spent less than two hours a day out of their cells. 

By February 2017, there was not a single establishment inspected in England and Wales in which he felt it was safe to hold children and young people. Meanwhile, in many prisons, shower and lavatory facilities were filthy and dilapidated with no credible or affordable plans for refurbishment.

Ministry of Justice figures published at the end of April 2018 show that, in addition to rising levels of self-harm, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and murders in prisons, assaults on staff are also rocketing. 

The prison officers’ POA union says the quarterly Safety in custody statistics show assaults on staff increased by nearly a quarter (23%) over the year and a staggering 196% since 2010. Serious assaults were up by 9.5% since the previous year and 186% since 2010. 

“Not every prison is a violent prison, but violence is the key focus of the union’s attention on health and safety,” POA assistant general secretary Glyn Travis told Labour Research. 

He said there are multiple underlying reasons for the increase in violence and self-harm, including inter-prisoner debt, often involving extortion by organised criminals. He described one particularly horrific practice of “potting”, where prisoners are under pressure to assault officers by throwing a mixture of urine and faeces over them as a way of paying off a debt to another inmate. Women officers are particular targets. 

Drugs, including the influence of the new psychoactive substance known as “spice”, are another major factor in the escalating violence. And Travis said that while the prison service is doing some good work in trying to address these problems, “the practical reality is that since 2010 the number of experienced officers leaving the service has never been recovered”. 

Exposure to psychoactive substances

Violence and exposure to new psychoactive substances (NPS) including “spice”, consumed through smoking, are major health and safety issues for prison educators and healthcare staff as well as prison officers. 

The UCU university and college union represents educators in prisons. Its health and safety officer Adam Lincoln told Labour Research the union had “seen a spike in violence, both in terms of the number of attacks and their severity, as well as an increase in our members’ exposure to the psychoactive substance known as spice”. 

The union says there have been incidents where individuals’ personalities have been permanently changed as a result of exposure to NPS. 

In May 2018, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) described a “spice drug epidemic in UK prisons” putting nurses as well as prisoners at serious risk. 

It said its members reported suffering the effects of inhaling the drug for hours following exposure, with some unable to drive home after their shifts. In one case, a nurse was knocked unconscious by the fumes. Meanwhile, others were concerned about driving after exposure because of safety fears and the fear of failing a drug driving test.

The union argued that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) guidance, which it was not involved in drawing up, “conflates the chronic and longer term issues of exposure to second hand tobacco smoke with the serious and acute issues of exposure to psychoactive substances”. 

It says the guidance suggests there is a duty for nurses and healthcare assistants “to intervene to protect a prisoner in danger of immediate harm in a cell where smoke or fumes has not yet cleared”. 

The RCN says this runs contrary to Resuscitation Council guidance to emergency responders to assess dangerous situations and ensure their own safety before treating casualties.

At a June 2018 meeting, HMPPS chief executive officer Michael Spurr agreed to work with unions to update the guidance.

Budget cuts, introduced under the 2010-2015 Tory-led coalition government’s austerity policies and continued under subsequent Tory administrations, have reduced recruitment and retention, forcing staff numbers down and levels of violence up. And he described a “revolving door”, with prison officers leaving the service as quickly as new and often very young officers are recruited. This has led to an “immeasurable” net loss in years of experience. 

Prison population and staffing

The prison population stood at 83,064 in June 2018, a slight fall from its August 2017 high point of 86,413. 

The number of home detention curfews being used has increased from 2,502 in March 2010 to 3,305 in June 2018. Over the last six months alone it has gone up by 1,208 from 2,181 at the end of January 2018.

The number of prison officers in post at the end of March 2018 was 21,041. 

In March 2010, shortly before the Tory-led coalition government took office in May 2010, the number was 24,830. This represents a drop of 15%. In addition, there were 7,698 operational support grades (OSGs) in post in March 2010 — uniformed operational staff who support prison officers in their day-to-day duties. There were just 4,495 OSG grades in post at the end of March 2018 — this represents a drop of 42%.

The service has lost over 7,000 frontline staff since 2010.

The reasons they are leaving, said Travis, include pay, a lack of career progression and poor working conditions including a long hours’ culture and poor work-life balance on top of the risk of being assaulted. 

He added: “Being expected to work weekends, nights and Bank Holidays, together with the visual impact of up to a hundred prisoners being unlocked, with just you and a colleague in control, can be a daunting experience — as can the first time they see a member of staff assaulted or prisoners fighting. It makes many decide ‘this is not for me’.” 

Levels of stress are also high. In a 2015 POA-commissioned survey of its members, led by Dr Gail Kinman at the University of Bedfordshire, more than one in three reported that their doctor had diagnosed them with a stress-related illness. Overcrowding is making these problems worse. Although the total number of prisoners has decreased, particularly over recent months as the government has increased the use of home detention curfews (see box on page 11), Travis said there is still overcrowding in particular prisons. 

Many are way above Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) and have been for many years. CNA represents the decent standard of accommodation the prison service aspires to provide to all prisoners. The POA says that, as part of the budget cuts introduced by the coalition government, prisons have been re-categorised to increase prisoner-to-staff ratios without any other changes being made. 

Prison maintenance privatisation

And privatisation is another significant factor. Private contractors Carillion and Amey took over prison maintenance between them in June 2015 — with disastrous results according to unions.

“Maintenance is a key safety issue and the failure and collapse of Carillion means that half the country’s prisons are in a state of disrepair,” Travis said. “Amey does not repair basic safety equipment, such as spy holes in prison doors for example, and the failure to repair cell windows is causing real problems. 

“It makes it easy for drugs and other items to be brought into prisons. The failed contracts are a significant feature in the increase in violence.”

The Unite general union recently called for prison maintenance contracts to be brought back in house after an employment tribunal ruled that Amey had unfairly dismissed two maintenance workers for raising safety concerns. 

John Bromilow and Harry Wildman were concerned that Amey’s changes to working practices, which meant they had to work alone rather than working in pairs in secure areas of the prison, put their safety at risk. They raised their concerns through an internal grievance, and then went to the prison governor to inform him they would take their complaint to the Health and Safety Executive. 

Unite says the governor immediately informed Amey, which sacked the workers for bringing the company into disrepute. 

The Employment Tribunal in Liverpool ruled the pair, who had combined service of 45 years, had been unfairly dismissed. 

Unite said both contracts are considered “troubled, with concerns that backlogs in urgent repairs are causing increasing disorder and violence and putting the safety of prison staff in danger”. 

Members of the UCU education union deliver education and training in prisons. It says one of the reasons toilets are “filthy and disgusting” is down to contracting out. 

According to UCU bargaining and negotiations official Jenny Lennox there is no clarity about who is supposed to clean them, and the issue of who runs and controls maintenance is unclear. Moreover, there are not enough prison officers to escort prisoners to toilets so inmates sometimes have to relieve themselves in the corner of the classroom. 

Ventilation is often inadequate and equipment not maintained, with both prisoners and educators being exposed to dust in workshops, for example. 

“Basic things like who changes the light bulbs is not clear in contracts, so prison educators have to walk down dark corridors,” she told Labour Research. “Facilities management contracts are not clear, so contractors argue it is not in the contract, or send staff who are not appropriately trained, equipped or dressed to do the cleaning.” 

The lack of clarity and delays in getting cleaning and maintenance done is also contributing to an an “increasing inability to deliver learning”. Sometimes weeks go by with no education at all taking place because there aren’t enough prison officers. 

Dangerous conditions in private prisons

A research briefing examining the role of prison officers by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Community trade union highlights similar health and safety problems in privately-run prisons. 

It describes staffing levels and patterns of working as “dangerous”, and even where prisons were technically fully staffed it says “staffing levels were so low that they did not have enough people to achieve the basics of keeping people safe and delivering a full regime”.

Union action

Unions are not hopeful of any meaningful government response to the crisis. The government announced a programme of prison reform in a November 2016 White Paper. But the proposals were cut short by the 2017 snap general election and no prison reform legislation was announced in the 2017 Queen’s Speech. 

In an open letter to justice secretary David Gauke, accusing the government of publishing misleading figures on prison officer recruitment, POA general secretary Steve Gillan said: “Clearly nothing this government is doing is eradicating the crisis within our prisons.”

The current focus of UCU action is on health and safety organising; getting more safety reps in place in prisons; and negotiating with education providers — including colleges and private training providers — for better internal health and safety structures so members can raise and fast track health and safety problems to get them resolved. “The biggest issue is that people are so used to working in a terrible environment that they don’t report problems,” said Lennox. “A large part of our campaign is to tackle the culture and get people to report so we have evidence and can shine a light on the problems and use this for political lobbying and campaigning.”

This is an urgent task for the union as it fears things could get even worse when a new commissioning framework comes into play in April 2019. This will bring in new and smaller providers for smaller groups of prisons than is currently the case. 

The UCU is worried the new regime will give governors more power, and prison education managers will be under even more pressure to accept “mission creep” — where educators are asked to take on roles that used to be, and should be, carried out by prison officers, putting them at increased risk of violence.

The RCN nursing union represents nurses and healthcare assistants working in prisons. Its health and safety officer Kim Sunley believes the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, initially introduced as a Private Members’ Bill by the Labour MP Chris Bryant and currently making its way through Parliament, should act as a deterrent by providing tougher and extended sentences for assaults on prison staff. 

“However, prevention is always better than sanctions, and the RCN is calling for robust risk assessments and action plans, better communication between the prison service and healthcare providers and improved staff inductions and training in de-escalation,” Sunley told Labour Research. The union wants action to address nursing staff shortages — there are 40,000 vacancies across the NHS in England, and particular difficulties in recruiting to the challenging prisons environment. And it wants to see improvements to the prison estate, which she says is not always designed in a way to minimise violence. 

It is also promoting the value of safety reps and encouraging employers to work in partnership with unions. It is doing this to establish effective health and safety committees to improve communication between the prison service and healthcare providers, including NHS Trusts and independent sector providers. 

And, like the UCU, it is working to put health and safety structures in place so workers who are not directly employed by the prison service can raise concerns and get them addressed.

Meanwhile the POA says its industrial arm has been “shackled” by anti-trade union legislation, which Travis describes as “a shameful indictment of the government in 2018”. 

The union does not have the right to strike, and last year the government obtained a High Court injunction to prevent POA members from withdrawing from “voluntary tasks” in its dispute over pay, working conditions and safety. “The POA campaign recognises that health and safety is not for sale,” Travis told Labour Research. “It is non-negotiable.” 

He said the union is now “taking the ultimate legal action — judicial review remedy”, a type of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body.

The union is doing this “where the government and employer fail to protect the health and safety of staff and prisoners alike, to make sure prisons are safe and prisoners’ human rights are protected”.