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VICE Exclusive: Ambulance and Fire Brigade Call Outs to Prisons Have Doubled in Five Years

Further proof prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous.

by Mark Wilding
04 August 2017, 10:12am

An ambulance backs into HMP Birmingham during a prison riot in 2016 (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Archive/PA Images)

Prisons are not meant to be nice places, but they should at least be safe. Unfortunately, that's not the case – and the situation is getting worse. Figures obtained by VICE under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the number of ambulance and fire brigade call-outs to prisons and young offending institutions in England has more than doubled in five years.

VICE can also reveal that the combined number of incidents attended by all three emergency services has risen every year since 2011 – painting a damning picture of deteriorating safety at a time when the government has slashed the number of frontline prison officers.

Full data on prison call-outs was provided by nine out of England's ten ambulance trusts.

In 2011, crews from those trusts attended a total of 5,177 incidents at prisons and young offending institutions. By 2016, that figure had risen to 10,651.

Last year, crews from all ten ambulance trusts were called out to prisons a total of 11,681 times – an average of one call-out every 45 minutes.

The ambulance service has seen the greatest increase in incidents, but prison call-outs have risen right across the emergency services. Incidents attended by fire and rescue crews have also more than doubled, rising from 742 in 2011 to 1,582 last year. Data provided by 90 out of 97 ambulance trusts, police forces and fire services in England suggest call-outs attended by all emergency services have risen by 60 percent over the last five years.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, says: "These figures are shocking but sadly unsurprising. Violence, deaths by suicide and incidents of self-injury behind bars have all reached record levels as prisons fail to cope with chronic overcrowding and deep staff cuts."

Emergency service call-outs have continued to rise despite the government receiving repeated warnings about the deteriorating safety situation within British jails. Last year, the UK's chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke concluded in his annual report that prisons had become "unacceptably violent and dangerous places". In this year's report, published last month, Clarke wrote: "Last year I reported that too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse. There have been startling increases in all types of violence."

Just last week, a report on Bristol prison concluded that "standards had fallen from an already low base to the point where it was fundamentally unsafe for staff and prisoners". When inspectors visited in March, they found the prison was understaffed and was holding 543 prisoners, even though it is designed to accommodate only 424.

Similar situations can be found right across the country. The number of people behind bars in England and Wales has risen dramatically over the last few decades, passing 85,000 in 2010. Since then, it has remained relatively stable – albeit at a level well above the Prison Service's intended capacity. In December 2016, more than half of all prisons in England and Wales were operating at a level beyond which they were able to offer a "decent standard of accommodation".

Over the same period, prison officer numbers have been slashed. According to Full Fact, the number of officers on the frontline has been reduced from 19,900 in 2010 to 14,700 in 2015. In November last year, 10,000 prison officers walked out in protest over safety concerns, with a spokesman for the Prison Officers Association stating that the service was "in meltdown".

The events of recent months would suggest officers' concerns were justified. A month after the walk-out, a riot broke out at HMP Birmingham. A third of the prison's inmates were involved in 12 hours of unrest, causing £2 million of damage. Soon after the riot in Birmingham, 60 inmates at HMP Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey took control of a wing and set fires inside the prison. Just this week, riot officers were sent into a Hertfordshire prison twice in 24 hours.

Prisoners are exposed to far more than just physical danger. Concerns have been raised about the growing mental health crisis within the criminal justice system. Mark Fairhurst, a prison officer at HMP Liverpool, told VICE last year: "When you're dealing with vulnerable people, especially those with mental health problems, you now don't have the time to sit down with them for even ten minutes to go through their issues."

As if all this wasn't enough, the prison service is now facing a new problem. Drugs have always been an issue in prisons, but the relatively low cost and difficulty in detecting New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) has seen their popularity soar behind bars. Spice, by far the most popular of these drugs, has been linked to several deaths inside jails.

"The level of drugs and violence in prisons has led to a massive increase in the number of emergency services that are being called out," says Glyn Travis, spokesman for the Prison Officers Association. "The government have done too little, too late. They have ignored the problem of New Psychoactive Substances for too long. It's now grown to epidemic levels."

In November last year, the government published a white paper on prison safety and reform. It announced it would be recruiting 2,500 prison officers across England and Wales to tackle "unacceptable" levels of violence, while ruling out "arbitrary reductions in the prison population". Even with the new recruits, the service will still have thousands fewer prison officers than in 2010. Other proposals included proposed "no-fly zones" over prisons to tackle the perceived problem of drug deliveries by drone.

These measures fall way short of what prison officers say is required. "We've got to get a root and branch review," says Travis. "We've got to increase security, technology, so it's a whole joined-up approach that's needed to get prisons back to where they were seven or eight years ago." He is unimpressed by ministers' promises. "It's all political sound bites suggesting the situation is improving when the facts are they are a damned sight worse."

While politicians struggle to get to grips with this problem, prisoners find themselves at greater and greater risk. In July this year it was revealed that incidents of assault, self-harm and suicide had all risen to all-time highs. In the 12 months to March 2016, there were more than 70 assaults on staff and inmates every 24 hours. An inmate self-harmed every 13 minutes. In the course of last year there were 119 self-inflicted deaths in prisons – a life lost every three days.

@mark_wilding