The country’s health and safety watchdog has inspected dangerously deteriorating prisons after assaults on prison officers have continued to rise.

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the independent body for work-related health, safety and illness, said that it led an inspection initiative at a small number of prisons at the end of 2017 “as a response to the increasing numbers of reported assaults on prison officers”.

According to the Government’s latest safety in custody statistics, self-harm, assaults and serious assaults – between prisoners and on prison staff – have again risen to “record highs”.

Assaults on prison staff have increased by 196% since 2010, with 8,429 incidents being recorded in the 12 months to December 2017, up 23% from the year before. There were also more than 800 serious assaults on staff in the same period.

The HSE spokesman said: “The intervention was to determine if risks from violence and aggression were being adequately managed by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and private contractors and to assess compliance with legislation.

“We are currently feeding back the findings from this work to senior management in HMPPS and private contractors.”

The spokesman said that the HSE could not provide information on the key findings of the inspections.

“The HSE enforces legislation to ensure that risks to employees and others who work in prisons are managed by HMPPS and private contractors,” they continued.

“HM Inspector of Prisons is responsible for carrying out inspections with regard to the safety of prisoners.

“In terms of health and safety management within the Prison Service, the HSE maintains close contact with HMPPS and the private sector with regard to risk management in relation to numerous relevant safety issues.

“HSE’s regional operational teams will assess any Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrence Regulations reports received and will make further enquiries for any incidents which are deemed to meet the HSE investigation criteria.”

The HSE’s enforcement duties include dealing immediately with serious risks, ensuring employers are complying with health and safety law, and holding to account those failing in their responsibilities to do so. It can serve notices, issue cautions and prosecute employers.

Safety in prisons has deteriorated in the past five years after prison officers and resources were cut as part of austerity measures. Violence, self-harm, suicides and aggression caused by widespread drug use and restricted prison regimes have all worsened.

Last month, Phil Wheatley, the former director general of the now defunct National Offender Management Service, the predecessor of HMPPS, called the running of unsafe prisons “a crime”.

“Ministers should concentrate on acquiring the additional staff and resources needed to make prisons safe again,” he wrote in the Prisons Handbook. “If that is not politically possible they will need to take the political action needed to reduce the prison population to a level that the country can afford. 

“It is simply not acceptable in a comparatively rich democratic country to run unsafe prisons that do not provide decent conditions. This is not simply a moral issue, but a legal one too; to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act, which creates legal duties to both staff and prisoners.

“In short, running prisons unsafely is a crime and one to which the Health and Safety Commission ought to give more attention.”

The Government has said that it is taking steps to tackle drugs, drones, phones and gangs in prisons and that its target of recruiting 2,500 additional prison officers has been met seven months early.

But, in an open letter, Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said the latest safety in custody figures were “nothing short of a scandal”.

“Ministers and employers must take responsibility instead of burying their heads in the sand and pretending a recruitment campaign is going to resolve this clear crisis that has been created by poor policy decisions,” he added.

“There can be no denial that safety has deteriorated since cuts were made in 2010.”

Answering a question on prison officer safety in the House of Commons last week, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart revealed that, between April and December last year, prison officers were taken to hospital following an assault more than 700 times. 

“We are taking urgent action to make prisons safer and assaults on our hard-working staff will never be tolerated,” Mr Stewart said. “We are ensuring that prison officers have the tools they need to do their jobs by rolling out body-worn cameras, ‘police-style’ handcuffs and restraints, and trialling PAVA incapacitant spray.”

The Government is also doubling the maximum sentence for assaulting a prison officer from six to 12 months.

“It is 100% in the public interest to prosecute prisoners who assault prison officers,” the Prisons Minister said in a recent parliamentary debate on prison officers

“If they are not prosecuted, the authority of the state is undermined; it becomes almost impossible for prison officers to run a decent and human regime, very difficult for people to be unlocked from their cells and difficult to move people into education and purposeful activity.

“We owe that to prison officers, but we also owe it to the public as a whole to have safe, clean and decent prisons.”

As well as assaults, concerns have again been raised in recent weeks about the effects of the psychoactive drug Spice – used widely by inmates in prisons – on the health of prison officers.

Last month, the NHS withdrew nurses from HMP Holme House due to the adverse health effects of inadvertently inhaling Spice being experienced by its staff. One MP has even called for prison officers to be given gas marks to help combat the problem.

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