Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Prison Violence: Is It Going Up or Down?

As we all know, statistics can be used – or misused – to justify almost anything. Recently I’ve become very interested in the official statistics on violence in prison as these are being cited as evidence that British prisons are becoming more violent. I’m not actually convinced we’re getting the whole truth, so I’ve been investigating what data is currently available.

Statistics: it's all about method and interpretation
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that prison can be a violent place. I’ve seen some very nasty incidents, including a ‘jugging’ (boiling water and sugar thrown into another inmate’s face), a felt-tip pen stabbed into a bloke’s eye and a fair number of punishment beatings, mostly designed to scare rather than to cause serious injury, so I’m not denying for one moment that nasty things happen in the nick. They do and, given that prisons tend to accommodate a fairly high proportion of individuals who have anger management problems, I suppose that’s what can be expected. However, I am starting to doubt whether the current furore over ‘rising’ figures for violence is based on a correct interpretation of the available official data.

For example, if we look at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures for assaults on prison staff in 2013, we are told that there were 356 incidents. Of course, we’re not told whether any of these involved one con kicking off and assaulting more than one screw during a single incident, so that is an area of some uncertainty and more clarity might help. 

Now, based on the MOJ’s own published Safer Custody statistics for 2002-2012, I can only assume that the recent figures quoted in the media – which aren’t in the consolidated report as they post-date it – are for what is defined as ‘serious assaults’, because during 2012 a total of 2,987 assaults on staff were recorded, of which 260 were defined as being ‘serious’. On the face of it, therefore, the number of serious assaults on members of staff did increase year-on-year from 260 to 356 – quite a jump of around 27 percent. 

Prison violence: is it really on the rise?
However, that’s not the whole story. If one looks at the official figures for serious assaults on prison staff over the previous ten years, one can see that the figure of 260 incidents in 2012 was in fact the lowest of any year since 2002 itself when there were 196 cases recorded. In 2005, for example there were 299 serious incidents and in 2010 there were 302. So while there was an undoubted rise during 2013, it is much less statistically significant than a simple year-on-year comparison might suggest.

If we then look at all recorded assaults (not only those defined as ‘serious’) on prison staff between 2002 and 2012, in point of fact 2006 was the bumper year with 3,530 incidents. In comparison, during 2012 there were 2,987 assaults of all kinds and this, in itself, was actually lower than it had been during seven other years in the period 2002 to 2012. So if we were to re-write the media headlines they could have said: “Assaults on Prison Staff Lower in 2012 than in Seven Previous Years since 2002” – but that wouldn’t have been quite so exciting, a bit like the infamous “Small Earthquake in Chile, Not Many Dead” headline that allegedly once appeared in The Times

The Prison Officers Association's take on the situation
Now let’s turn to prisoner-on-prisoner violence – which accounts for by far the highest number of assaults. During 2013 we are told that there were 8,123 incidents, with 2,278 cases involving ‘weapons’ (presumably shanks, razors or table legs etc, rather than guns). Since I was in the slammer throughout last year, that figure must include a fair number of attacks I either witnessed or saw the consequences of afterwards. According to the MOJ’s published Safer Custody figures for 2012, there were 14,511 assaults (of which 550 occurred in female prisons). 

This raises the question of how 8,123 incidents can be interpreted as an increase on 14,511. Common sense dictates that the number of overall assaults appears to have fallen, rather than risen. Perhaps there is something I’m missing (and remember, I’m a social anthropologist, not a statistician), but I really can’t see where the claims concerning rising violence are supported by the data that is currently available.

Prison shanks
OK. Let’s next examine the figures for serious assaults by prisoners on prisoners. In 2012 these were recorded as 1,255 (of which 28 involved female inmates). However, when examined in comparison with previous years covered by the MOJ Safer Custody stats, these had actually gone down significantly. For example, in 2011 the figure was 1,374; in 2010: 1,385; in 2009: 1,317 and in 2008 it was at an all time high of 1,491, with 2007 not far behind at 1,485. If we are to accept the MOJ’s published statistics, then 2012 was actually the least violent year for serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence since 2004 when the number of recorded incidents was 1,220. 

So what, dear reader, can we deduce from the MOJ’s Safer Custody figures? On the face of it, at least, prison seems to be becoming a less violent place, even if 2013 saw a significant rise in serious attacks against prison staff. However, there are some missing variables that we should consider. 

Drugs and debt: behind much violence
The first is the extent to which prison violence goes unreported. Punishment beatings for debt – which I’ve dealt with in a previous blog post – often fail to come to the attention of the prison authorities, because no-one reports them.

If you’re going to give someone a pasting because they owe a few ounces of burn (tobacco), then you don’t hit them in the face. You punch them in the stomach and kick them in the balls so there are no immediately visible bruises. In fact, you only tend to see the physical evidence in the showers or the gym when no screws are looking. These assaults are rarely reported owing to the inmate code against ‘grassing’ (informing).

The second is that it only takes the arrival of a few very violent cons in any nick to significantly increase the number of assaults against staff. One extremely disturbed and violent inmate who fancies ‘a bit of bother’ can statistically skew the Safer Custody figures for an entire year. The Blocks (segregation units) at most higher security establishments house these individuals, some of whom can only be unlocked in the presence of a posse of well-equipped screws. Therefore, a rise in the overall number of serious assaults against staff may be attributable to the violent actions of a few hard cases, some of whom may well be suffering from serious mental illnesses.

So are UK prisons becoming less safe or more violent? In my experience, the answer to the first question is yes. Fewer frontline staff on prison wings can lead directly to a rise in bullying, ‘taxing’ (extortion/charging of protection money), the drug trade and all the associated violence that flows from these activities. In addition, the rising number of older and more vulnerable prisoners across the prison estate means that there are more targets for the bullies and the extortionists. Much of this will not appear in the official MOJ statistics simply because such incidents rarely get reported.

Behind closed doors
However, in answer to the second question, I’m not entirely convinced that we are witnessing a significant rise in serious incidents of violence on prison wings. Violence was not a daily occurrence at the two B-cats in which I served a substantial part of my own time inside. I personally never felt that I was at any risk, although I did witness some very nasty incidents. The official figures tend to suggest that the number of reported assaults, at least, are pretty stable, with some annual fluctuation, rather than specific spikes that can be attributed to any specific policy.

Where we can see a significant statistical variation is in the figures for suicides in custody in 2013-2014. It is undeniable that these reveal a very worrying trend. By March 2014, 88 inmates had committed suicide in prisons in England and Wales. This represents a rise of over 40 percent on the previous 12 months and the situation certainly hasn’t improved since then as the recent report issued by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman highlighted. 

Reported incidents of self-harm also rose to 23,478 so far this year, an increase of 750 when compared to the figures for the same period in 2012-2013. So if prison is indeed becoming more violent, then the hard evidence tends to suggest that prisoners are becoming more likely to self-harm or commit suicide and that, in my opinion, is closely linked to rising tensions, shortages of frontline staff, inadequate mental health support, more time spent behind the cell door and the generally deteriorating conditions inside our prisons.


  1. My first comment is about percentages.

    By my maths, it would appear around 10% of prisoners and around 14% of prison officers were subject to violence last year; as you stated we obviously don't know details but when you consider UK police officers are hitting the 9% mark for injuries it does seem that something needs to be done inside prisons.

  2. My second comment is about the self harm issue.

    Whilst the cuts to front line staff and mental health services has undoubtedly played a part I suspect that the fact that individuals who previously would have been in specialist 'hospitals' rather than prison is also to blame.

    Finally, in my (limited) experience, if someone wants to really kill themselves then they will always find a way, regardless of their location.

    1. Sure, and I think that the use of prisons as substitute secure hospitals is entirely inappropriate. It places an often unmanageable burden on wing staff, healthcare teams and other prisoners.

      Of course, a person determined to commit suicide can almost always succeed, but I wonder how many of the 'successful' attempts were actually cries for help and/or attention that went wrong. Also, that wouldn't simply explain why there has been such a marked rise in suicides over the past 12 months.

  3. Thanks for your comment. On the face of it, yes, but what the available stats don't show is how many different prisoners and staff were actually involved. As I point out in the blog post, one very violent inmate who attacks a number of staff and/or other cons can cause a significant rise in the annual figures.

    Another aspect that isn't factored into the MOJ stats is the security category of prisons concerned. Are there more assaults of all kinds in the high security estate? We might assume so, because level of risk posed by an individual is taken into account when either the Parole Board or OCA makes decisions about recategorisation, but again, that isn't clear. You might expect D-cats to be less violent (and I think that they are), but there's no statistical evidence available.

    I definitely agree that something needs to be done, and my own view is that better mental health provision would be one major improvement. Another step forward would be more frontline staff so less education, work, visits and other out-of-cell activities are cancelled. These issues raise tensions and can lead cons to kick off on the wings. Cutting back on gym time was also a serious miscalculation, in my humble opinion, since this was a useful outlet for energy and testosterone, particularly in younger more volatile lads.

    1. I definitely agree with more front line staff so activities are available; the punishment element of prison is supposed to be the loss of liberty, not the loss of everything.

  4. The loss of liberty isnt enough to stop many prisoners from reoffending. Loss of privalages and rehabilitation of prisoners is one way to change the mindset of certain individuals.

    1. Thanks for your comment. While it is true that the prospect of losing some privileges can deter individual prisoners from breaking the rules inside prison, it really doesn't have any impact on rehabilitation or reform. Where British prisons fail to deliver is on rehabilitation as the statistics for re-offending (particularly by prisoners serving short sentences) shows year after year.

      In the end, the only person who can make the decision to change is the individual prisoner, but he or she should be provided with the means to achieve that change: literacy, better education, mental healthcare, drug/alcohol/gambling addiction treatment. Otherwise the prison system simply warehouses people at a high cost until they are released to go and - in too many cases - commit further criminal offences.

  5. I read about Charles Bronson attacking Alan Parkins (Governor) of HMP Woodhill recently. Would it be a good idea to introduce the use of tazers within prisons?

    1. Thanks for your question. I think that the problem with having any weapons of that kind (lethal or non-lethal) is that when you have a staff-prisoner ratio of 180 to 2 or 3 during an incident, the taser can easily fall into a hands of rioting cons! That's the reason handguns are not permitted inside US prisons.

      I don't really know all the background to this Bronson (aka Salvador) incident. The media reports that it was something to do with the withholding of his mail and that it happened in a TV room.

      Sounds to me a bit like mismanagement of a touchy subject. Is Bronson on 3-man unlock or what? That's what I don't know. Overall, I think the guy has very serious mental problems, not made any better by years of solitary bang-up and the tabloid media reporting/mis-reporting every little incident.

      I don't think that the problem of very violent people in prison is a new one. If you read Jimmy Boyle's autobiography A Sense of Freedom (1977) he thrived on kicking off and broke a governor's jaw during one adjudication by jumping over the table. Maybe part of the problem now is a shortage of experienced wing staff who who how to handle lads with very poor anger management skills and/or severe mental problems.

  6. i think it's down and out cannot evaluate the current scenario there are good as well as Worst Prisons in the World too