Level of staffing has been ‘detrimental’ to security in prisons, says Richard Heaton

Ministry of Justice perm sec and other top officials from justice and health admit staff cuts have contributed to record high suicide rate in prisons

Credit: PA

By Tamsin Rutter

24 Oct 2017

The level of staffing and lack of regular contact between prison officers and offenders in prisons over the past three years “has been detrimental to security and stability”, Richard Heaton admitted to MPs yesterday.

Outlining efforts to tackle the record levels of self-harm and deaths in prisons, the Ministry of Justice permanent secretary and other top officials from the justice and health departments were damning of the impact of the cut in prison officer numbers.

Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee, Heaton also said the MoJ was introducing suicide awareness training, more one-to-one contact with offenders, and “administrative measures” to boost the role of the prisons inspectorate and ensure the department improves its response to recommendations made by the chief inspector of prisons and other watchdogs.


There are now a quarter fewer prison officers than there were in 2010, and spending on prisons is down 22% since 2009-10, according to Institute for Government figures. The number of assaults on officers is now 124% above 2009 levels, while 2016 was the worst year on record for rates of self-inflicted harm and suicide in prisons.

Last week the MoJ claimed its drive to recruit 2,500 new prison officers had reached the halfway point – but critics point to high levels of churn in the prison service, with the Prison Officers Association arguing that in reality at least 4,500 extra officers are needed.

Heaton said: “The level of staffing has been detrimental to the security and stability and good order in a prison, including the self-confidence and ability to be resilient amongst offenders. 

“It was the case that offenders had a regular human contact with prison officers more often than has been the case in the last three years. 

“So, bringing some prison officers back onto the wing and establishing a proper one-to-one engagement with prison officers is incredibly important, partly because you can pick up problems, partly because conversations can happen and the human space can operate whereby people don’t feel alone.”

But Heaton also said that an incident at the high-security Long Lartin prison this month, which required prison riot officers to intervene to prevent violence among around 80 inmates, had not been caused by understaffing.

Also speaking to MPs on the committee, Michael Spurr, chief executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, said 2016 had been “a horrible year in terms of the number of deaths” and that this was “a sign of a whole range of things that aren’t working how we would want them to work”.

This included “changes in prison regime, changes in numbers in staff”, he said, but added that there was “equally an issue about change in drug use [and] the changing nature of people who come into prisons”.

The increase in prisoners taking new psychoactive substances was having a particular impact, he added.

Spurr said: “I think the level of self-harm and the deaths in prison are a dreadful thing and yes, it is a damning indictment that anybody takes their life or dies in prison. And levels of self harm going up like this is something that worries all of us who work in prisons.”

He said 12% of men and 28% of women in prisons are self-harming. 

Also questioned by the PAC, chief executive of NHS England Simon Stevens added that the scheme to digitise the health information system used for screening all new inmates would help improve the mental health landscape in prisons.

“We will then actually be able to do a more longitudinal comprehensive assessment of their mental health and ensure they then get the services that they need,” he said. 

By he added that he welcomed the “efforts that the prison service is making to increase staff numbers [which] will help with getting prisoners to the health appointments that are made for them within the prison estate”.

Heaton told MPs that the prisons service had introduced suicide awareness training, which 7,000 members of staff are currently going through but will eventually be rolled out to all staff.

The department is working to improve its responses to recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman that carries out independent investigations into deaths and complaints in custody, the prisons inspectorate and select committees, he added. 

“We haven’t been as good as we should be at responding, keeping up to date with the recommendations against us,” he said, adding that “administrative measures” were being introduced whereby the inspector can escalate serious problems to the secretary of state.

This was initially included in a clause in the prisons bill, but dropped due to the “pressure on legislative time because of the Brexit legislation and other things”, Heaton said.

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