Prisons in crisis: More escapees, more attacks on staff, fewer rehab programmes

200 inmates escaped or absconded from prisons in England and Wales in the last year, official figures show.
200 inmates escaped or absconded from prisons in England and Wales in the last year, official figures show.
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A LEAP in the number of on-the-run inmates was among a batch of statistics revealed on a bleak day for England’s prisons.

An increase in deaths in custody, a rise in the number of jails considered to be “of concern” and a surge in assaults on prison staff were also revealed in figures published by the Ministry of Justice.

And the number of offending behaviour programmes completed in and out of custody, designed to reduce re-offending, including those targeted at sex offenders and drug abusers, has fallen.

Three prisons in Yorkshire, Leeds, Doncaster and Lindholme, were found to be among the growing number of sites deemed to be “of concern”.

As the figures prompted accusations that prisons had become “death traps”, it emerged that a prison officer had part of his ear bitten off by an inmate during an attack at Nottingham Prison.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the prison estate had experienced a “significant period of change” and admitted it had been “a challenge”.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: “The true scale of the growing crisis in the country’s prisons is revealed by the Government’s own data.

“Violence is up, deaths in custody are up and the number of prisoners going on the run is up.

“The Government is trying to hide the sheer scale of the failings in the Ministry of Justice from the public by trying to pretend there’s not a problem, let alone a crisis.

“This is all evidence of the incompetence of David Cameron’s Government.

“The evidence is piling up that the Government has caused a prison crisis.

“The courses, training and healthcare needed to make sure prisoners are reformed aren’t happening.

“Staring at their cell walls for hours on end, surrounded by death and violence, will do nothing to stop offenders committing further crimes on their release.”

More than 200 inmates escaped or absconded from prisons in England and Wales in the last year, according to the figures, suggesting prisoners went missing at a rate of around one every two days.

There were a total of 225 absconds, an increase of 21 compared to the previous year, which included 137 from open prisons, which have been the subject of controversy after a spate of criminals walked out.

The most high-profile of those was Michael Wheatley - known as the “Skullcracker” - who sparked a nationwide manhunt after absconding from HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Two male criminals fled jails in 2013/14 and another two escaped prisoner escorts, the figures show.

The report revealed the two escapes last year were from HMP Wandsworth in south-west London and HMP Kennet in Merseyside.

And 90 absconders who have disappeared from prisons in the last decade were still at large at the end of last month, while another 79 have not returned after being granted temporary release since 2004.

In other figures, one prison - HMP Brinsford, near Wolverhampton - received the worst performance rating “of serious concern” from the National Offender Management Service (Noms), while a further 27 were marked “of concern”. This is a doubling of the number of prisons rated “of concern” in the space of 12 months.

The number of prisoners who died in custody jumped by nearly a quarter in the year to March to reach its highest level for almost a decade.

A total of 225 inmates died in jail in 2013/14, compared to 181 in the same period the previous year. This was the highest number since 2005.

Meanwhile the number of attacks on prison staff soared to its highest level for six years - up by more than a tenth to 3,363 in the 12 months to March - prompting suggestions that jails in England and Wales have become “places of extreme violence”.

The figures showed that the number of attacks against staff has increased - the highest number since 2007.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Prisons are becoming places of extreme violence as men are caged with nothing to do all day, and in some terrible cases they have become death traps.”

Figures showed the number of offender behaviour programmes completed in custody fell between 2013/14 and 2012/13 from 7,339 to 6,515, while the number of programmes completed in the community dropped from 6,718 to 6,221.

Meanwhile, in 2013/14 around one in 13 (7.4%) of random drug tests of prisoners was positive. This was slightly up on the previous year, when the figure was 7%.

Some 1,155 prisoners deemed as “low risk” have worked outside of prison on temporary licences, earning a total of more than £3.6 million - an increase of almost £1 million compared to 2012/13.

The average earnings for each prisoner was around £770 a month, before an MoJ levy was taken which amounted to just over £1 million of the total payments.

The national crowding rate in prisons was 22.9% in 2013/14 - meaning nearly one in four prisoners is being held in a cell, cubicle or room where the number of occupants exceeds the “uncrowded” capacity.

Glyn Travis, of the Prison Officers’ Association, claimed the prisons service is “in crisis”.

He said: “The prison population is increasing and despite changes introduced by the Ministry of Justice we still believe that inappropriate prisoners are being sent to open conditions as the service tries to manage its available cellular accommodation.”

Although the number of absconds has risen year on year, the total of 225 was the third lowest since the current method of counting was introduced in 2004.

The Justice Secretary said: “Over the last couple of years we have seen a major programme of reform across both prisons and probation - aimed at providing the best service to the public while lowering the cost to the taxpayer.

“In this current economic climate all public services are required to help ease the burden. We are not exempt from that and have reduced our overall budget by 24%, through sensible and well-considered reforms, commended by the National Audit Office.

“As with any significant period of change - coupled with prison population increases higher than expected - it has been a challenge. We are responding to and managing the additional pressures but prisons are still running safe and decent regimes.”