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Fall in prison officer numbers has created ‘toxic cocktail’

Prison officer numbers are still at dangerously low levels despite government efforts to recruit more, a prisons’ charity has said.

New analysis from the Howard League of Penal Reform shows that in 2016, there were 14,689 officers working in UK prisons, compared to 15,110 in 2015.

Prison officer numbers fell from 17,190 to 14,660 between 2013 and 2014, prompting two years of efforts to recruit more officers.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Reducing resources while allowing the prison population to grow unchecked has created a toxic cocktail of violence, death and human misery. These figures show how reductions in staffing and problems in recruiting and retaining new staff are feeding the problems behind bars.

“The vast majority of those sent to prison will be released back to the community and so it matters to all of us what happens to people when they are sent to prison. Throwing someone into a raging torrent of violence, drugs and despair is not going to help that person steer away from crime. On the contrary, it will feed more crime and create yet more pressure on the failing prisons.

“The Ministry of Justice can look again at its recruitment policies but only wide-ranging reforms, which include a serious attempt at reducing prison numbers, will move us away from institutions that shame the nation.”

Cuts in prison officer numbers have been linked to increasingly dangerous conditions in prisons. In June 2015-16 321 people died in prison custody, a 30% increase from the previous year. This included 105 people who are thought to have taken their own lives.

In March 2015-16, self-harm in prisons increased by 27% to 34,586 incidents and assaults on prison staff increased by 40% to 5,423 incidents.

The biggest drops in prison officer numbers were in the East Midlands (8%), the south west (7%) and the West Midlands (7%).

A programme of reforms designed to make it easier to rehabilitate prisoners was announced under the last government. However, P J McParlin, chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, told PSE that the dangerous conditions in prisons would make it hard for the reforms to be effective.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have recruited 2,900 staff over the last 12 months and are taking significant action to make sure we have appropriate staffing levels.

“The secretary of state is determined to make sure our prisons are safe and places of rehabilitation and will set out her plans for reform shortly.”

The Howard League for Penal Reform warned recently that children in care homes are being increasingly 'criminalised' by staff calling the police unnecessarily.

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Marianne Overton MBE   04/09/2016 at 12:56

Just reducing prisoner numbers on its own would be more dangerous still if these people who need help are left loose and inadequately supported in the community. There has to be a realistic alternative and that costs money. We need Workers with tiny case loads, three or four, and real access to a range of other support devices. The vast majority of inmates are damaged by abuse or drugs and abusing them further by locking them up with violence and drugs clearly makes it worse. Much more is needed on assertive outreach to prevent reoffending. Just spending money on more prisons that are rarely successful is throwing good money after bad, without tackling the underlying causes and mental health.

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