Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

At risk every day

Staffing levels in prisons across the United Kingdom must be addressed to stem the increase in life-threatening situations our prison officers face at work, argues Lauren Crowley

On Saturday, two prison officers and members of Community working at HMP Addiewell in West Lothian were rushed to hospital after inhaling second hand smoke from the drug ‘Spice’. This incident is the latest of many where the safety of prison officers has been put at risk as a result of new psychoactive substances being freely available in our prisons.

The criminal justice system is not often on the top of the agenda, politically or in the minds of the public. It usually is not the issue that people worry about in their day to day lives, like they do with the economy or the state of their children’s education.

The smooth running of our prisons is rightly taken for granted – living in a civil, democratic society means that criminals are caught, charged, and punished appropriately. Often, little thought is given to it.

Our safety, in that regard, is taken for granted.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for our members across the United Kingdom working in prisons, immigration removal centres, courts and prisoner escorting and electronic monitoring services.

And in the bubble of think tanks, policy experts, civil servants and charitable organisations, a lot is rightly said about reducing reoffending, rehabilitation and prisoner rights. But little is said about the crisis that faces our public servants, putting themselves in harm’s way to provide this service and protect society.

Over the last couple of years there has been media coverage of the rising violence in our prisons, but little action and no change. We should be proud of the work our prison officers do, proud enough to defend them when they come under threat.

This threat is causing the situation to deteriorate.

On average twenty prison staff are assaulted every day. Assaults on staff are currently up 32 per cent on last year. Serious assaults on staff have trebled since 2013, up 25 per cent on last year. All of these incidents are at a record high.

New psychoactive substances, sometimes known as ‘legal highs’, are in part causing the rise in attacks on prison staff. Spice, the most well-known and frequently used legal high, is colourless and odourless, making it difficult to track and detect. The government have made it a criminal offence to possess psychoactive substances in prison and deployed approximately 300 dogs to avoid smuggling. Yet in many cases the prisons do not know how the drug enters the prison and preventative measures are not enough.

UK prisons are grossly understaffed and already cannot cope with the normal business of a prison. Add to that the impact of undetectable hallucinogenic drugs, drugs that cause an inmate to lose complete control of his actions, and can cause officers to end up in hospital through inhalation of second hand smoke. This toxic cocktail of problems could quickly turn into a full-blown prison crisis.

Community members tell me it is usual practice to have one officer on a wing of 30-60 inmates. The government has cut prison officers by a third since 2010 and are struggling to recruit the 2,500 additional officers they promised in 2016. Unless something is urgently done, the situation will continue to rapidly deteriorate.

Prison officers have described to me the shocking and life-threatening situations they now regularly face as a result of this understaffing. If an incident happens, too often they are caught out – forced to attempt to deal with it on their own, with back up arriving too late or not at all. Members have shared with me the unpredictable consequences of NPS usage – a usually compliant and mild inmate can react to such a degree that it can require eight or nine officers to restrain him and control the situation. The resource required to react appropriately to NPS usage and to keep staff and inmates safe is just not realistic with current levels of staffing.

Community has been actively campaigning on this issue for two and a half years, using a Safe Operating Solutions Charter developed by members – a set of minimum safety standards, which aims to establish common standards that both government and companies competing for and running privatised justice contracts can adopt.

We have had some success, winning commitment from nearly all the companies we work with and securing additional personal protection equipment for members including batons and body-cameras. Unless the UK governments (justice is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland) urgently address staffing levels, our members will continue to have their safety put at risk every day they go to work.


Lauren Crowley is head of research and policy at Community and associate fellow at the Changing Work Centre. She tweets at @Lauren_Crowley



Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Lauren Crowley

Add comment

Sign up to our daily roundup email