UK prisons: is there any hope?

28 April 2017

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has published a report on its visit to the UK in which it sets out ‘serious concerns’ over the safety of inmates and staff in English prisons. Based on the systemic failings identified, the CPT considers that no prisons are safe for prisoners or staff.

This is the first time the CPT reviewed the treatment of persons held in adult and juvenile prisons and police custody in England since 2008.  They also looked at immigration detention, as well as in-patient adult psychiatry and medium and high secure forensic psychiatry establishments. The full report can be accessed here. This blog deals with the CPT’s main findings in relation to adult and juvenile prisons.

In its report, the CPT raises concerns about the amount of inter-prisoner violence and attacks on prison staff and inmates resulting in injuries where the victim often required hospitalisation, such as extensive burns from scalding water being thrown over victims, ‘shank’ (stab) wounds, head wounds, broken noses and broken teeth. On one occasion violence resulted in the death of an inmate. Weaknesses were also identified in the staff response to violent incidents, as well as in incident recording. According to the CPT, although violent incidents are high, they may well be under-reported; this raises further concerns that the problem may be more severe than it seems.

The CPT is also critical of the chronic overcrowding observed in prisons. The CPT found that overcrowding affected prison life and led to a considerable number of prisoners spending up to 22 hours per day locked up in their cells.  As the number of prisoners has continued to rise, the CPT found that the number of front-line prison officers dropped by around 30% over three years. This led to operational safety being compromised.

Concerns are also raised in relation to youth offender institutions. The CPT found that youth offender institutions often dealt with the high level of prison violence and overcrowding, by locking up juveniles alone in their cells for long periods of time, sometimes up to 23.5 hours per day. The CPT condemned this treatment as inhuman and degrading.  They also found that according to youth offender institution records, some youth offenders were held alone in conditions akin to solitary confinement for long periods of time, occasionally up to 80 days, for reasons of discipline and good order. 

Such treatment inevitably compromises the physical or mental health of the juveniles concerned and it runs contrary to the increasing trend, at the international level, to promote the abolition of solitary confinement as a disciplinary action in respect of juveniles.

The CPT’s report follows the House of Commons Justice Committee’s report on prison safety, published in May last year, where the Committee concluded that  overall levels of safety in prisons are not only not improving, but they are deteriorating significantly. A copy of the Justice Committee’s report can be accessed here.

Despite the government’s promise for wider prison reforms, the CPT emphasises that unless “concrete, determined and swift action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population”, the regime improvements envisaged by the UK authorities will remain unattainable.

The CPT’s report does not come as a surprise. With a fast-rising prison population and decreasing staff levels, we are unlikely to see a decrease in the levels of prison violence.  What remains to be seen is whether the government’s proposed reforms will address the failings identified by the CPT and transform prisons into an environment where prisoners’ human rights are respected and where rehabilitation and change is supported.

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