Prison safety Contents

3Action to improve prison safety

20.Our predecessor Committee felt that the Government and NOMS had underplayed the seriousness of the deterioration in safety.37 The Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, has taken a different approach. Acknowledging the gravity of the situation in evidence to us on 15 July 2015 he said

We have significant problems in our prisons at the moment. You cannot look at the number of suicides and self-inflicted injuries or at the level of violence overall in the prison estate and feel anything other than concern about the conditions in which prison officers have to work and the conditions in which offenders are kept.38

21.When we put the risk of appearing complacent to Michael Spurr he conveyed his disappointment at any such characterisation:

The idea that we are complacent or have no sense of urgency about it is completely unfair. You cannot just take a solution off the shelf and sort out a change dynamic to the prison population that is real.39

Describing the challenges NOMS faced overcoming some of the issues he said:

… the issue of N[ew] P[sychoactive] S[ubstances] escalated in an unprecedented fashion over the period from early 2014 through this year. I think we are getting on top of it now, but we are not yet at that position. That has changed the dynamic, both in the way individuals behave in response to those drugs and in the illicit economy that operates in prisons to supply them. They were almost tailor-made for prisons. You can buy them on the streets legally and relatively cheaply and get them into prisons in a whole range of ways, including throwing stuff over the wall, which is why Ministers took a decision to make that a criminal offence. You would not believe that that was such a problem, but it was; a huge amount of stuff was coming over the wall. That led to a significant change in the way the illicit economy worked. It sounds too simple to say bullying; it is more like extortion and violence.40

22.We do not plan to repeat here in detail the various explanations for the ongoing decline in prison safety which were described in our predecessors’ report and the Government response. Nevertheless, in addition to the influx of new psychoactive substances described above, Mr Selous, attributed the decline to a higher than anticipated prison population at a time when staffing numbers had been reduced; and a more challenging mix of prisoners.41 These factors were already present at the time of our predecessors’ inquiry so may not fully explain the further deterioration in safety.

Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service action

23.The Ministry of Justice and NOMS have sought to improve prison safety through a range of legislative, operational, and staff recruitment measures:

The efficacy of action to improve prison safety

24.The former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, said that (notwithstanding difficulties in comparing HMI Prisons’ evidence from one year to the next due to variance in the establishments inspected) recent inspections demonstrated a “marginally improved” picture which had “levelled out”. While there was improvement in respect and purposeful activity, there had been little change in resettlement and “erratic change” in safety outcomes. For him the latter remained of great concern:

NOMS data demonstrates that prisons have become a lot more dangerous, with higher levels of homicides, self-inflicted deaths, self-harm incidents and …. assaults and serious assaults (on staff and other prisoners) than they have been since these records began.44

Noting that his inspection results were more up to date than NOMS’ Safety in Custody statistics he hoped and expected to see improvements in the next set of statistics, referring to those due to be published in January 2016. That was the case in regard to self-inflicted deaths (which have since risen again) but not for all other indicators.

Self-inflicted deaths

25.The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, noted that reasons for self-inflicted deaths were varied and were typically the culmination of personal crises in individual lives, and he therefore cautioned against simple explanations. Nevertheless, he drew our attention to the pervasiveness of mental health needs, the impact of the use of new psychoactive substances, and weaknesses in the response of prison staff to risks presented by prisoners as well as missed opportunities to prevent deaths. In relation to the latter he observed

… it remains the case that I am frequently obliged to repeat recommendations and lessons and it can be depressing how little traction we appear to have on occasions, notwithstanding the strong commitment to implement identified improvements, at individual prisons and more broadly, signalled by Ministers and senior officials.45

These recurrent missed opportunities to prevent deaths echoed the findings of Lord Harris in his review of self-inflicted deaths of young adults.46 Mr Selous emphasised the importance of continually learning from what has gone wrong and improving procedures, including acting on the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s recommendations.47

26.Self-inflicted deaths tend to occur a relatively short time after coming into custody and both Mr Selous and Mr Spurr highlighted work that NOMS was doing to improve induction and early days experiences.48 Kate Lampard, identified that the key change in the pattern of self-inflicted deaths was that the proportion of those taking their own lives early in their time in an individual prison has dropped markedly. She suggested that this meant that “the right policies are largely in place to address this vulnerable period of imprisonment and staff are clearly ensuring their appropriate enactment.”49 We are not convinced that this necessarily follows as the total number of self-inflicted deaths has risen significantly. A higher number of deaths taking place at a later stage might therefore explain the lower proportion of earlier deaths. Both the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman have recently examined aspects of treatment at induction and in the early days of custody.50 Each acknowledged challenges for staff but the former found that assessments were variable in quality and accuracy and the latter that a common factor in deaths was staff failing to identify, or act on, information about factors known to increase prisoners’ risk of suicide or self-harm.

The Government’s response to the Harris Review

27.The report of an Independent Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18–24 year olds, led by Lord Toby Harris, known as the Harris Review, was published in July 2015. Lord Harris gave evidence to our ongoing inquiry on young adults shortly after the Government published its response.51 Lord Harris welcomed the overall tone of the response and the clear promise that reducing the rates of violence, self-harm and death was seen as a ministerial priority, but was disappointed at the rejection of some of the central recommendations of his report which aimed to strengthen the support available to young adults to prevent self-inflicted deaths.

28.Lord Harris also told us that although safeguarding policies existed, they did not always operate as intended and neither were they adequately resourced. With regard to ensuring relevant information enters prisons in a timely manner, which we have heard from some bereaved families was not the case when their children died, Mr Selous assured us that “time and resources must be available to resolve issues that cannot be left unresolved on the first night in custody and personal help and support provided to prisoners as needed.”52 Nevertheless, additional safeguards which Lord Harris proposed be implemented to provide young adults in custody with greater support to prevent self-inflicted deaths were not accepted by the Government.

29.In reference to the Government’s response to his review, Lord Harris wrote to the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody on 28 February 2016 lamenting the lack of discussion of its content and findings by the Board and noting that an update that was due to be presented at its meeting that week said “very little about the Review’s recommendations” and “was distinctly disingenuous in saying that the Government has agreed with most of these recommendations”. He emphasised that the Government had rejected 33 of his recommendations and that a number of those recommendations had been described as ‘agreed and already adopted’ despite him having made them because existing policies were found by the Review not to be effective, as he had explained to us.53

30.According to the Government, the responses to some recommendations of the Harris Review were pending the Ministry’s wider penal reform agenda. Mr Selous was of the view that the planned reforms—details of which were given by the Prime Minister in his speech on 12 February 2016—would also help stabilise the situation:

At the start of a sentence, if you can give someone a hope, a future and a plan that, hopefully, they can buy into, I believe that that whole reform programme will speak as powerfully in this area as all the other things that, quite rightly, we need to have in place in the assessment and care in custody process as well.54

When the Secretary of State gave evidence to us on 16 March 2016 about the Ministry’s planned prison reforms, we asked about the prospect of achieving them given the current challenges in the prison estate. He stated:

I certainly would not deny that having a prison that is at or near or even bumping at capacity inhibits flexibility—of course it does—but I would not over-fixate on numbers, because there is a danger of being paralysed by the thought that we cannot make any change until we reduce the population. That is the argument put by some. I think that we should make changes within the current population. Let us not oversell those changes or be too extravagant in our expectations. Then, as people gain confidence that the changes are bringing results, hopefully the rehabilitative activity will work and we can have more slack in the system in order to accelerate the pace of reform.55

Violence and drug use

31.PJ McParlin, the National Chair of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), in a lengthy response raised concerns about the 42% increase in serious assaults over a 12 month period. He did not agree with Michael Spurr that there has been improvement in prison safety. For the Association’s members safety “continues to be a matter of the utmost concern”. The POA felt that NOMS did not act sufficiently quickly to deal with issues related to new psychoactive substances as they emerged. HM Inspectorate of Prisons in its December 2015 thematic report on changing patterns of substance misuse in adult prisons proposed that NOMS focus both on reducing supply and developing effective treatment and psychosocial support.56 Mr Selous and Mr Spurr emphasised legislative measures to tackle drugs and violence—some of which had only recently come into force and were yet to take effect—and a new test for psychoactive substances which would be available from early this year.57 They also noted efforts that were being made to reduce demand through peer workers and information materials.58 Nevertheless, when we asked how many violent incidents involved the use of a knife, the possession of which in custody was recently made a distinct criminal offence, neither Mr Selous nor Mr Spurr was able to enlighten us.59

32.On the March 2015 agreement between the POA and NOMS and Michael Spurr’s intimation that the POA’s ongoing concerns related to grievances over pay60 the POA said:

The NOMS / POA 2015 Agreement was not about a consolidated or non-consolidated pay award. It could never have been about pay given that the recommendations for the 2015 / 2016 pay award had been accepted in full by the Government in February 2015. A responsible trade union would not use health and safety legislation as a weapon of choice to address issues of pay. If a trade union adopted such a strategy it would be damaging and self-defeating.61

33.Michael Spurr told us that NOMS and the POA were working together to address shared concerns.62 The POA was participating in NOMS’ violence reduction project but cited differences in their views on what was required to protect staff effectively. For example, the POA would like stab-proof vests to be issued to prison staff whereas NOMS insist that slash resistant vests afford sufficient protection.

34.The POA suggested that NOMS ought to ask themselves a series of “searching questions”:

Do NOMS have an effective recruitment and retention policy with regard to staffing? Do they have an effective strategy to deal with serious and imminent danger, for example, fires and concerted indiscipline? Do NOMS have an effective strategy to control risk? Are NOMS actively monitoring safety in the workplace? Are NOMS investigating near misses in the workplace? Are NOMS convinced that they have adequate resources to address the current situation with regards to prison safety? Are NOMS reactive rather than proactive in their management of prison safety?63

Michael Spurr explained to us the range of steps NOMS had taken to address the POA’s concerns with regards to safety and emphasised that ongoing joint work was crucial as an “operational prison environment requires constant vigilance around risks, safety and order for prisoners and for staff”.64

Staffing and recruitment

35.The POA do not believe that recruitment has kept pace with demand, or benchmarked need, with ongoing reliance on staff on detached duty. Noting that there were 7,000 fewer officers than in 2010, when the prison population was approximately 2,500 lower, the Association believed that budget cuts, and resulting reductions in staffing, were intrinsically linked to the increase in violence, deaths and suicides. For example, they submitted that drug problems relate to reductions in: staffing levels in visits; the number of drug dogs; and routine cell searching.65 While there has been a falling trend in the number of positive mandatory drug tests, the proportion of administered tests which are positive has remained constant over the last few years.66

36.Michael Spurr told our predecessor Committee that recruitment levels were such that the use of measures to address staffing shortages including detached duty and restricted regimes would both be reduced after Christmas 2014.67 At that time restricted regimes were operating in 22 prisons. In December 2015 they remained in place in 14 prisons.68 The number of detached duty staff had also fallen but remained at around 200.69 Nevertheless, Mr Spurr remained optimistic:

In stability terms, there is evidence from the inspectorate that we have turned a corner. That is not yet entirely consistent everywhere, but there is no question—I met the chief inspector recently and he confirmed it—but that there are now more reports demonstrating that establishments are more stable and are operating better. Where we have staffing at benchmark levels—which is the case for the majority, other than the 14 jails I have mentioned—increasingly we are seeing that the regimes can be delivered fully …70

Targeted recruitment schemes were being used to address staffing issues at these prisons.71 Mr Spurr emphasised that the performance of establishments was getting better, although there was still some variation. We were unable to verify that as NOMS’ annual measures of the performance of individual prisons will not be published until the summer.

37.The question of safe staffing levels is also associated with NOMS’ benchmarking programme which was implemented across the public sector prison estate to reduce costs. Given that staffing levels during its inquiry fell short of those judged to be required under benchmarking, our predecessor Committee was unable to assess whether NOMS’ approach would facilitate more effective regimes, or whether safety levels could be restored to their previous higher levels.72 In its letter to Michael Spurr, the POA was clear in its view that “the benchmarking exercise has not provided safe, secure and decent prisons”. It suggested that understaffing has contributed to NOMS’ failure to implement the March 2015 agreement, and that this is partly due to under-assessment of staffing requirements. It is not possible from the Ministry of Justice’s workforce statistics to determine whether prisons are understaffed relative to their benchmarked complement. The Secretary of State indicated to us in July 2015 that he recognised that it might be necessary to review the impact of the resulting efficiencies. He said he wished to “consider, that exercise having taken place, did the shoe pinch too tightly in any particular area? Are there consequences of benchmarking and of the reforms that were made that we need to reflect on?”73

Staff conduct

38.Almost one-quarter (360) of those who left the prison service in the three months to December 2015 were dismissed. Michael Spurr acknowledged that officer corruption was an issue, but one NOMS was alert to:

In any organisation, there will be those who are bad staff … I have not tried to hide it, as you have just indicated. We have a very strong focus on people acting professionally and properly. How do you prove a negative? The vast majority of our staff are good, decent, hard-working public servants. There is a very small minority who breach that …our view is that we do not want any and we will take action where we find it. The convictions effectively demonstrate that. We have had a number of those recently.74

The Ministry announced in its Single Departmental Plan that it is developing a new Corruption Prevention Strategy to deal with the small number of corrupt staff who allow contraband into prisons.75

Conclusions and recommendations76

39.Notwithstanding the considerable efforts of the Ministry of Justice, National Offender Management Service and staff in prisons striving to keep prisoners and themselves secure and unharmed, overall levels of safety in prisons are not stabilising as the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service had hoped, let alone improving. This is a matter of great concern, and improvement is urgently needed.

40.The Ministry of Justice has begun to set out its plans for an ambitious penal reform agenda, the detail of which we will examine in due course. In the meantime, it is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing the recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths, without which we firmly believe the implementation of these wider reforms will be severely undermined.

41.It is a matter of particular concern that despite a sustained recruitment exercise, described by the Minister as going at “full throttle”, the net increase in public sector prison officers was only 440 last year. In our view this demonstrates a serious and deep-rooted issue of staff retention by NOMS which renders much of the recruitment exercise valueless. The factors underlying this issue are, we suspect, not fully understood by NOMS and are clearly not being adequately addressed. It is vital that they get a grip of this urgently to prevent further waste of resources dedicated to such significant recruitment exercises.

42.We recommend that the Ministry and NOMS together produce an action plan for improving prison safety, addressing the factors underlying the rises in violence, self-harm and suicide. The plan should include both preventative measures and punitive ones, and should provide objectives, accompanied by indices to assess the impact these are having. It should encompass action NOMS is taking with regard to recruitment and retention of prison staff, the implications of the Secretary of State’s review of benchmarking, and should also address the apparent lack of observance of professional standards by some officers through the Corruption Prevention Strategy, the development of which we welcome.

43.To assist us in examining the impact of this action plan we wish to receive quarterly reports over the remainder of this Parliament with timely data from the Ministry and NOMS, shortly after the publication of the quarterly Safety in Custody statistics, reporting on progress against the plan and including other key indicators of prison disorder not currently included in those statistics. In addition, NOMS’ annual production of prison performance ratings, the next of which are not due until July 2016, do not enable us to scrutinise the performance of prisons in a timely manner. We wish to be apprised of these quarterly as part of the aforementioned report. Similarly, NOMS’ workforce statistics are not presented sufficiently clearly to enable us quickly to grasp the staffing situation. Accordingly, we would like regularly to receive, in addition to the Safety in Custody statistics:

44.We have been in contact with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, which has a crucial role in monitoring performance in prisons, to identify ways in which they could be involved in assisting us further with our scrutiny of NOMS’ performance in managing prison safety. We will continue those discussions following the Ministry’s response to the recommendations in this Report.


37 Ninth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 309, para 102

38 Oral evidence taken on 15 July 2015, HC (2015–16) 335, Q29

39 Q3

40 Ibid.

41 Q1

42 Five minute interventions (FMIs) are a technique for trained prison officers to use certain skills in everyday conversations with prisoners to address criminogenic needs and encourage a new outlook.

43 Qq 12–13, 18, 20, 27, 35, 36, 44, 51, 54–55, 76, 89

44 Letter from Nick Hardwick

45 Letter from Nigel Newcomen

46 Lord Harris of Haringey, The Harris Review: Changing Prisons, Saving Lives Report of the Independent Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18–24 year olds, July 2015, Cm 9087

47 Q7

48 Qq12–13

49 Letter from Kate Lampard

50 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Life in prison: the first 24 hours in prison, November 2015; Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Learning lessons bulletin: Early days and weeks in custody, Fatal incidents investigations, Issue 10, February 2016

51 Oral evidence taken on 12 January 2016, HC (2015–16) 397, Qq57–99

52 Letter from Andrew Selous MP

53 Letter from Lord Harris of Haringey to the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody, 28 February 2016, copied to the Committee by Lord Toby Harris, unpublished

54 Q18. See also Prison reform: Prime Minister’s speech to Policy Exchange, 8 February 2016.

56 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Changing patterns of substance misuse in adult prisons and service responses, Thematic Review, December 2015

57 Qq37, 43

58 Q43

59 Qq52–53

60 Q2

61 Written response from PJ McParlin

62 Qq2–3; Q47

63 Written response from PJ McParlin

64 Qq43–50

65 Written response from PJ McParlin

66 PQ 25298 [On Prisons: Drugs], 2 February 2016; NOMS Annual Report 2014/15 Management Information Addendum, Table 6, p 19; NOMS Annual Report 2013/14 Management Information Addendum, Table 8, p 13; NOMS Annual Report 2012/13 Management Information Addendum, Table 8, p 21

67 Ninth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 309, paras 106, 111

68 Q38

69 Q67

70 Q39

71 Q68

72 Ninth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 309, para 117

73 Q33

74 Q75

75 Ministry of Justice, Single Departmental Plan: 2015 to 2020, 19 February 2016

76 N.B. In this report, Committee conclusions are in bold text, recommendations are in bold italics.




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13 May 2016