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Health and safety watchdog forced to reveal findings of inspections into dangerous prisons

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Hardeep MatharuLondon, UK
Health and safety watchdog forced to reveal findings of inspections into dangerous prisons
EXCLUSIVE: Freedom of Information request to Health and Safety Executive reveals concerns about 'firefighting', inexperienced staff and no clear focus on investigating underlying causes of violence and learning lessons in some prisons

The health and safety watchdog has been forced to reveal the findings of the inspections it has carried out in dangerous prisons as assaults against prison officers have soared.

Last month, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) told me that, as a result of increasing numbers of reported assaults on prison officers, it led an “inspection initiative at a small number of prisons at the end of 2017”, but that it could not give out any information about its key findings.

However, in response to a Freedom of Information request, it has now outlined the issues the inspections highlighted – including a focus on “firefighting”, underlying causes of violence not being prioritised in internal investigations, how filthy jails and an “unfair” Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme can lead to violence, and the failure of placing young offenders into adult prisons in order to control levels of violence.

The HSE is the country’s independent body for work-related health, safety and illness. Its enforcement duties include dealing immediately with serious risks, ensuring employers are complying with health and safety law, and holding to account those failing in their responsibilities to do so. It can serve notices, issue cautions and prosecute employers.

According to the Government’s latest safety in custody statistics, self-harm, assaults and serious assaults – between prisoners and on prison staff – have again risen to “record highs”.

Assaults on prison staff have increased by 196% since 2010, with 8,429 incidents recorded in 2017, up 23% from the year before. There were also more than 800 serious assaults on staff in the same period.

Although the HSE said it found that causes of violence and aggression are known and understood in the prisons it inspected and that there are “policies, procedure and initiatives, both locally and nationally, to enable the management of violence and aggression”, many of the other findings I obtained under Freedom of Information raised a number of concerns.

The key findings:

● Internal prison investigations into violence that “do not focus clearly on underlying causes and lessons learned” and findings not being widely shared

● Good practice not always being recognised by staff, with the HSE noting that “it was not always clear ‘what good looks like’”

● Prisons feeling “overwhelmed by the challenges of identifying priorities and allocating resources to address these”

● A “focus on ‘firefighting’”

● Inexperienced staff “contributing to the challenges of managing violence and aggression”, with the HSE questioning whether it was the case of “the right people, in the right place at the right time with the right experience”

● Dirty prisons being “an estate-wide issue to resolve as poor environment is directly related to violence and aggression”

● Concerns around overcrowded prisons and the placing of young offenders in adult prisons as a means of controlling violence. The HSE said: “Pressures on residential accommodation can lead to an inappropriate mix of prisoners and increase the potential for violence and aggression. The integration of young offenders into the mainstream system was not reported as being successful in controlling violence amongst this group”

● The Incentive and Earned Privileges Scheme – whereby prisoners are able to earn benefits in exchange for responsible behaviour – can lead to violence and aggression as it was felt, by both prisoners and staff, “to be ineffectively applied and unfair”

● The “churn of staff and prisoners” in some prisons “not enabling supportive relationships to be developed to assist the management of violence and aggression”

● Unpredictability leading to frustration and violence, with both prisoners and staff preferring a consistent, predictable prison regime

● Delays in transferring prisoners from courts to prison leading to frustration and potential violence, with the HSE suggesting that “contracts for prisoner transport require review”

● Health and safety resources in some prisons not being used to effectively focus on risks from violence and aggression

 Controlling the risks of violence to healthcare staff was “inconsistent”, with some feeling very safe and those in other prisons feeling at “considerable risk”

● Systems for reporting incidents of violence and aggression being unnecessarily complicated, with up to 12 forms needing to be completed in some prisons

● Prisons being inconsistent at identifying the training required by staff, delivering and then monitoring its effectiveness

The HSE said that effective leadership of a prison was key, and that it “found good practice in all the establishments we visited but also inconsistent implementation”.

Despite the HSE telling me last month that it was “currently feeding back the findings from this work to senior management in HM Prison and Probation Service and private contractors”, a press officer at the Ministry of Justice said she would need to know which prisons had been inspected and the dates of the inspections before the Ministry of Justice would be able to comment on the findings.

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