Over a quarter (26 per cent) of staff working in prisons have been the victim of physical violence within the last year, according to new figures from a coalition of trade unions and professional organisations.

The survey, published by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance*, showed that one in seven (14 per cent) of staff who reported experiencing recent physical violence have been assaulted more than ten times in the past year.

Of those who reported a physical assault to their employer, 57 per cent were dissatisfied with the action taken.  In a further 20 per cent of cases, respondents said no action was taken at all. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of survey respondents reported feeling unsafe at work in the last twelve months.

The research also looks at the effect of exposure to psychoactive substances – including spice – on staff. Over half of staff (53 per cent) said they had been exposed, and over a third (39 per cent) reported becoming ill as a result.  Symptoms included light-headedness, dizziness, confusion and tiredness (97 per cent), nausea and vomiting (49.4 per cent), increased heart rate and blood pressure (34.5 per cent) and anxiety and paranoia (28 per cent).

The research published today compiles responses from more than 1,600 people working in over 100 prisons in England and Wales, and has been prompted by widespread employee concern about the effects of understaffing including the loss of experienced staff, overcrowding and drug use in prisons.

Only 9.9 per cent of respondents said they were ‘confident’ or ‘reasonably confident’ that things will improve in the next twelve months.

Brian Morton, co-Chair of the JUPA and National Officer at the Royal College of Nursing said:

“Prisons will always be tough environments, but violence against staff should be seen as exceptional, and always unacceptable.  Unfortunately, assaults are now almost a routine experience for many people who work in prisons.  Poor reporting mechanisms and a failure to investigate the causes and consequences of these events is leaving staff feeling helpless and hopeless – with our research showing that 66 per cent feel things have got worse in the last twelve months.  50 per cent have no confidence that things will improve, and if the present staffing crisis is allowed to continue, they will probably be proved right.

“To make matters worse, drug use is literally poisoning the atmosphere in our prisons, forcing some staff to carry out their duties while experiencing secondary effects.  This is a new low in the history of our penal system and must be addressed as a matter of priority.

“The new Minister for prisons has an unenviable task in dealing with years of underinvestment in the people who keep our prisons running.  Listening to them is the first step towards building a prison service that is fit for purpose.”

Prisons have suffered a drain in experienced staff in recent years, with official government statistics revealing that 40 per cent of prison officers now have less than three years’ experience.  The high percentage of young and inexperienced staff, coupled with low staffing levels across the system, has contributed to a surge in violence and drug use.

JUPA is calling for urgent action from the Government, Prison Service and other employers in the sector to ensure:

  • Tougher responses to violent incidents, including use of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (offences) Act 2018.
  • Better health and safety reporting, including a single reporting system.
  • Action to prevent exposure to psychoactive substances.
  • Joint work between employers and unions to examine the causes and effects of violence against staff.
  • More prison officers and other personnel to ensure safe and effective staffing levels.


Notes to Editors

The full data is at: https://www.ucu.org.uk/publications

* The Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance brings together the following nine trade unions and professional organisations, all of whom have members working to provide services in prisons: POA - The Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers; The BMA - the trade union and professional body for doctors and medical students in the UK; GMB Union; Napo - the trade union and professional association that represents probation staff; The Public and Commercial Services Union; Royal College of Nursing; University and College Union; UNISON; and Unite.  It represents staff employed by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, private prison providers, and staff working for contractors providing cleaning, maintenance, healthcare and education services.

  • According to official government statistics, 42 per cent of officers in public prisons have less than three years' experience - with 9,488 officers having less than three years and 13,234 with more.  80,000 yearsof officer experience have been lost since 2010.
  • JUPA will write to the Minister responsible for prisons, Robert Buckland QC MP, to request a meeting to discuss the issues raised in this report.
  • For further information contact Oliver Fry, Media Manager, Royal College of Nursing: oliver.fry@rcn.org.uk / 07855 456 453