By Mark Leech

Having been Editor of The Prisons Handbook for the last 23 years, I know a thing or two about prisons – but what does anyone really know about prisons?

Well we know for sure our prisons are in meltdown, that much is obvious from the four ‘Urgent Notifications‘ issued by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in the last 12 months.

But the question I want to pose here is: do we actually know just how serious a meltdown it really is?

The grim reality is obvious to anyone who spends half an hour googling our prison system: our prisons are less safe today than at any time since records began.

There were 31,025 assault incidents in the 12 months to March 2018, up 16% from the previous year. In the 12 months to March 2018, there were 3,926 serious assaults, up 9% from the previous year. Both of these figures are the highest in the time series. In the most recent quarter, to June 2018, assaults increased by 6% to 8,243 incidents.

Shocking isn’t it?

And yet, these figures stretch disingenuousness to the edge of dishonesty; and the Ministry of Justice know it too.

The problem is that the central Incidents Recording System (IRS) for HM Prison & Probation & Probation Service (HMPPS) records ‘incidents’, not ‘individuals’.

If prison gangs clash, and half a dozen prisoners need hospital treatment, that is classed as one incident, which woefully reflects the real incident in which six prisoners were actually injured.

Equally, if there is a ‘concerted act of indiscipline’, where inmates take over a wing and half a dozen staff are injured, then bizarrely that too is recorded as just one incident – keeping schtum about the six public officials who were actually injured in the process.

If reducing violence in our prisons is to have the priority that the Government claim, then surely we need to start with accurate figures?

Violence is violence, right?

How many people in prison were injured in reality, as well as the number of incidents to which those numbers correlate, I would have thought is vital to anyone wanting to make sense of what is really happening with violence inside?

How can anyone know if the total published violence figures are right, if the data from which they’re generated isn’t made available?

The Ministry of Justice have been asked by FOI to disclose this information, but they refused.

They say their IRS doesn’t record such information and, as a result, it was just too expensive to unravel the data.

“Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS)’s central Incidents Recording System (IRS) only records an incident as one irrespective of the number of individuals involved. As such, it cannot be filtered to electronically isolate the number of staff involved in any single incident. To provide you with such information for the period covering question (a) and (b) will require that we conduct a free text search on the over 9000 individual incident reports in the period from April 2017 and June 2018. This would require reading through each of these incident reports to identify the number of staff involved and how many were assaulted. We believe the cost of conducting this search to extract and collate the information requested will indeed exceed the appropriate limit set under the FOIA. Consequently, we are not obliged to comply with your request.”

I am told by the Prison Officers Association that, privately at least, the MOJ admit they are under-reporting violence in prisons by 15-20%.

If that’s true, almost 11,000 ‘individuals’ actually suffered as a result of violence in our prisons last year, which isn’t quite the 9,003 ‘incidents’ that the MOJ have chosen to tell us about – or anything like it.

What’s more its risible for them to claim its ‘too expensive’ to unravel what could be bogus figures; David Gauke has just been given £52m to, in part, reduce violence in our prisons.

Where do you start with that, if not with accurate numbers in order to accurately assess the true scale of the problem that lays ahead?

And its laughable too for them to blame the IRS: they built it!

Why can’t they just re-programme so it does collect the data – data they must already have, because they publish annual staff sickness absence figures anyway.

But this is not just a matter of statistics.

Should the courts really be sending people to prison just accepting that they will be subject to 20,000 assaults a year there?

Should Prison Officers really go to work accepting that being assaulted while working for the Government just goes with the job?

No.

Of course not, neither of them should – but they are, and in increasing numbers too.

When will David Gauke or Rory Stewart actually come clean and tell the truth about just how many people who live and work in our prisons suffer violence each year?

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook @prisonsorguk

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