The Government this week emerged victorious from a High Court case to prevent Prison Officers from taking industrial action. This comes as conditions in prisons are getting worse and there are increasing concerns for staff safety. The Prison Officers’ Association has highlighted that the ruling left staff unable to act if they felt threatened, warning that it is only a matter of time before a member of staff is seriously injured or even killed.
Concerns about staff safety have been raised due to a crisis within prisons. A series of budget cuts have left prisons understaffed, and have worsened living conditions for prisoners. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, called the current situation within prisons a ‘vicious cycle’. Violent behaviour leads to more restrictive security protocol being implemented, which frustrates inmates and leaves them feeling disenfranchised, driving them towards violent acts. All the while staff are being put at risk, and this High Court ruling now means prison officers must come in to work, even if their safety cannot be guaranteed.
The Prison Officers’ Association claims that the Ministry of Justice has not taken suitable steps to protect staff, and believes it is the MoJ’s duty as an employer to ensure the health and safety of their employees. Budget cuts have had a devastating impact on the prison system, and chronic staff shortages have undoubtedly put pressure on existing employees. Between 2010 and 2015, prisoner numbers across England and Wales remained steady at around 85000, yet in that same period officer numbers were cut by 10000, leaving one guard to 3.6 inmates. With staff resources overstretched, conditions for inmates have worsened, and levels of self-harm and violence have increased.
Poor living conditions and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation can have devastating effects on prisoners’ mental health. As a result of staff shortages and tightening security measures, prisoners often remain in their cells for up to 23 hours per day, eating and using the toilet in the same space. These conditions wear down their self-worth, and lead to increased levels of bullying, violence and mental health issues among inmates. This situation has been aggravated by the relatively easy access to drugs in prisons, many prisoners become addicted while incarcerated which exacerbates mental health conditions such as depression, and frequently leads to self-harm and violence toward staff or other inmates.
Following the unprecedented rise in mental health problems and violence in prisons, it is important to ensure inmates only return to society when they are not posing a risk to themselves or the public. Part of the role of our psychiatric expert witnesses is to give a qualified and impartial assessment of a prisoner’s mental wellbeing to a parole board, assessing whether they are rehabilitated enough to leave prison. We can supply psychiatric experts to any UK prison even at short notice, so please get in touch if you have any expert witness requirements.