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Our prisons are getting more dangerous

Russell Webster examines the latest Safety in Custody Bulletin

The Ministry of Justice published the latest Safety in Custody statistical bulletin this week.

These bulletins come out quarterly and are, in my opinion, the best indicator of the state of our prison system.

The bulletins contain the latest information about the number of deaths, suicides, incidents of self-harm and assaults on fellow prisoners and on staff.

They are particularly important as the information is published so quickly – the data on deaths is accurate up to the end of the previous month and the figures on self-harm and assaults are just four months old.

To be honest, about three years ago I hadn’t even heard of the Safety in Custody Statistics, but as the state of our prisons has degenerated over the last few years, I’ve become a regular reader. Ever since the MoJ started its big prison officer recruitment campaign two years ago, I’ve been hoping to read the latest edition of the bulletin and find that our prisons are starting to get safer again.

I’m afraid this has never been the case and yesterday’s figures are the worst ever. Here are the headline findings:


There were 325 deaths in prison custody in 2018 − a rise of 10% on the previous year. Ninety two of these deaths were suicides (up from 70 in 2017) and four were murders, one more than the previous year.


In the 12 months to September 2018, there were 52,814 incidents of self-harm – a massive 23 per cent increase on the previous year, and the highest figure ever recorded. The number of incidents which required prisoners to be hospitalised also went up by four per cent to 3179.


There were no fewer than 24,138 prison-on-prisoner assaults in the last year – up 18 per cent on the previous year. More than 3,000 of these (13 per cent) were serious assaults – an increase of two per cent on the previous year. Yet again, these are the highest ever figures recorded.

There was also a big increase in the number of assaults on staff – a total of 10,085, an increase of 29 per cent from the previous year. One in 10 of these assaults (997) were serious, up 27 per cent on the previous year.

When contemplating these figures, readers should remember that the prison population has actually gone down by over 2,000 in the previous year, making these figures even worse than they appear on first reading.


If we turn away from the neat rows on the MoJ spreadsheet and consider what this means for the men and women who are in prison and the (mainly) dedicated staff who look after them, we see that in our prison system on average:

Every week, two prisoners take their own lives.

Every day, eight or nine prisoners hurt themselves on purpose so badly that they cannot be treated in the prison healthcare centre but have to be sent to an outside hospital.

Every day, sixty six prisoners attack their fellow inmates; eight of these assaults will be serious.

Every day, twenty eight prisoners assault a member of staff; three of these assaults will be serious.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has promised to resign this summer if he cannot turn around the tide of growing violence in our prisons. He has identified 10 failing prisons (Hull, Humber, Isis, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham, Ranby, and Wormwood Scrubs) and has awarded each of them an additional £1 million in funding with the three objectives of enhancing physical security; improving safety and decency and developing new standards of leadership.

It is likely that one of the next two Safety in Custody Bulletins will provide information about deaths, self-harm and assaults in these 10 establishments so that we can see whether the MoJ is on the right course to getting our prisons back to being decent places to live and work.

Let us hope so.