A quarter of prison staff have been victims of violence in last year, unions say

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

The survey, published by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance (JUPA) – consisting of POA, BMA, GMB, Napo, RCN, UCU, UNISON and Unite – found one in seven (14%) of staff who were a victim of recent physical violence said they have been assaulted more than ten times in the past year.

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

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

JUPA co-chair and RCN national officer Brian Morton 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.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: ‘”Prison educators play a vital role in rehabilitating offenders and should not have to run the gauntlet of violence and drug exposure when they go to work. This survey shows that not only is violence against staff in prisons shockingly frequent, they are also routinely subjected to the harmful effects of psychoactive substances.

“It is appalling that two-thirds of staff in prisons report feeling unsafe in their workplace, and that so many say their concerns aren’t being dealt with properly. We urgently need much tougher action from the government and prison employers to improve the safety and working conditions of staff in our prisons.’

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

 

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