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Health & Safety In UK Prisons: A Guide

Posted: 18/09/2019

The importance of having a robust emergency response plan in place in prisons around the UK has been emphasised this month (September) by a new report from the auditor general for the Scottish Parliament, saying that the Scottish Prison Service has profound challenges to face in order to run the country’s overcrowded prisons safely and effectively.


Between 2014/2015 and 2018/2019, the prison service’s revenue budget has been cut by 12.5 per cent from £394.7 million to £345.2 million, in the face of rising costs. In the last two years, significant rises in assaults by prisoners against staff and other inmates have also been seen, with stress-related illnesses among employees up by almost a third in 2018/2019. Staff are also working longer hours, with additional payments up by 65 per cent to £4.25 million.


Auditor General for Scotland, Caroline Gardner commented on the findings, saying: “Scotland's prisons are running well over operating capacity. The Scottish Prison Service faces a combination of severe pressures on many fronts; this poses a threat to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability.”


Prisoner numbers went up by almost nine per cent in 2018/2019, peaking at 8,212 – and they’re predicted to rise even more. Financial pressures are also making it hard to prepare and support people for life outside prison.


The Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance recently published its first report - Safe Inside – to explore the experiences of physical and verbal abuse.


The study aimed to gain a better understanding of the working conditions inside prisons and issue a call for the necessary improvements to make sure that prisons are an effective environment in the support of rehabilitation and wellbeing.


It was found that in the last 12 months, incidences of verbal abuse among staff were high, with 77 per cent of people saying they had received such abuse from a prisoner. A third said they had experienced this between one and five times in the past year, while 50.5 per cent said they had come across it over ten times.


The findings also pointed to “alarming” levels of physical violence, with 26 per cent of those asked saying they had been a victim of this in the last year. The frequency of this was particularly concerning, with 24 per cent saying they had been a victim once in the last year. It was suggested that, because of this, safety arrangements for staff in prisons need to be overhauled urgently.


One prison worker made a link between funding available for prisons, high staff turnover and stress in the workplace, saying: “Prisons are suffering because of the political concept of austerity and compounded by the increased use of new substances and other drugs by prisoners.


“There are new staff coming in and many are good but they are being offered rubbish wages for the dangerous work they do daily and as a result, there is a high turnover. Violence is an everyday occurrence. I work on a wing and I worry for my colleagues all the time, getting home and finding it difficult to switch off.”


The report made several recommendations to help support and promote safer ways of working, including tougher responses to violent incidents. It was found that the majority of those who reported assaults weren’t happy with their employer’s response, with many saying that no action had been taken at all.

Better health and safety reporting was also recommended, including the introduction of a single reporting system. Many incidents go unreported at the moment, partly because of a feeling that they’re not dealt with effectively when they are reported. It’s also down to poor access to reporting systems and the fact that many employees have to complete numerous reports for a single incident. This needs to be streamlined.


Many of the health and safety issues in prisons can be linked to the loss of capacity and expertise among prison officers, so more prison officers are required to make sure that all of those working within the prison system are safe to go about their daily work.


Besides, meaningful consultations need to be had with trade unions to make sure that more effective approaches for preventing staff exposure to psychoactive substances are identified and implemented. It was found that many staff members in prisons suffer from serious effects of secondary exposure to harmful substances and measures to prevent this are either absent or ineffective.


It’s always worthwhile to periodic visit the Health and Safety Executive website to obtain the latest industry thoughts and advice on risk assessments.  Apparently, issues have been raised in the past regarding the performance of prisons where risk assessment preparation is concerned, which has led to Crown notices being handed down.


These were predominantly related to the handling of microbiological risks as a result of contact with blood and bodily fluids, so it might be worth reviewing practices and procedures in this regard.


Issues surrounding staffing levels have also been raised frequently by Prison Officers’ Associations. The HSE doesn’t typically become involved with discussions where this is concerned but agreed staffing levels can be set based on a risk assessment carried out by prison management following consultations with staff members. Staffing levels should not be reduced without a review of the risk assessment in question.


Where physical violence is concerned, it should be remembered that prisons have large numbers of employees who aren’t prison officers, some of whom come into regular contact with prisoners.


As such, there should be procedures in place that govern access to wings and other places when prisoners are present, with escorts arranged where necessary. Staff are typically offered training in how to handle hostage-taking situations and set procedures should be followed in such circumstances. Procedures and precautions will depend on the area to be visited, the profile of the prisoner and the individual, subject to appropriate risk assessments.