The safety of nurses working in prisons is being put at risk, because they have become “dangerous, overcrowded warehouses”, the Royal College of Nursing has claimed.
The warning comes after the president of the Prison Governors Association (PGA) published an open letter, claiming many prisons were “in crisis” due to recent government reforms to the prison service.
“Large numbers of new recruits can actually add to the instability in prisons”
In the letter, Andrea Allbut was especially critical of a move to split the operational control of offenders from policy decisions – a decision she described as “madness”, because it had seen experienced prison staff taken out of senior management teams to work at the Ministry of Justice.
She also highlighted problems with recruitment of prison staff and concerns about the quality of training and suitability of individuals hired.
“It has been said that large numbers of new recruits can actually add to the instability in prisons rather than improve it,” she wrote in the letter, which was published on 1 August. According to the PGA, there are “40 prisons of concern, 10 of which are very concerning”.
In response, the Royal College of Nursing said it recognised the issues raised and shared the PGA’s deep concern about the reform programme.
Ann Norman, the RCN’s professional lead for criminal justice and learning disabilities, said the college had received reports of nurses working in prisons being attacked and held hostage.
“Nursing staff are no longer willing to put their safety at risk”
In one appalling example, Paul Ramsay, clinical nurse manager at Cookham Wood young offenders institution, lost the sight in one eye after being punched in the face by an inmate. The 16-year-old who admitted the attack was found guilty of grievous bodily harm.
“These reforms have been catastrophic for both prisoners and staff, including healthcare teams,” said Ms Norman.
“There has been an 88% rise in assaults on prison staff over the past few years, and we’ve had reports of nurses being held hostage and a clinical manager losing their sight following a recent attack.
“Nurses play an essential role in the justice system, but their numbers are plummeting,” she said. “Prisons have become dangerous, overcrowded warehouses, and nursing staff are no longer willing to put their safety at risk.”
Ms Norman added that the health and rehabilitation of prisoners was “taking a serious hit”, because they were not getting the care and support they needed due to staffing issues.
“Mental health is a particular concern: there were 113 suicides in prison in the year up to March 2017, the highest rate since records began,” she said. “Demand is being pushed higher by an ageing prison population, with 16% now over 50.
Prison nurses ‘put at risk’ in overcrowded jails, warns RCN
“The Ministry of Justice needs to heed the PGA’s warning. Until prisons have the staff they need, the entire prison health care system is at risk of collapse,” said Ms Norman.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We know that our prisons have faced a number of long-standing challenges, which is why we have taken immediate action to boost prison officer numbers and have created Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.
“This will help to create a distinct, professionalised frontline service and will ensure that policy and operations are working closely together to deliver these much-needed reforms,” she said.
“We need to create calm and ordered environments to help ensure effective rehabilitation, and we continue to work closely with the unions and all staff to help achieve these vital reforms and make prisons places of safety and reform,” she added.
The spokeswoman also highlighted to Nursing Times that, as prisoners were more likely to experience mental health issues than the general population, the government was investing in specialist mental health training for prison officers to help reduce “worrying levels of self-harm and suicide in our prisons”.
“We are also increasing support to those at risk of self-harm or suicide, especially in the first 24 hours when we know offenders are at their most vulnerable, and working with the health secretary to increase the use of community sentences with mental health requirements so prison is not used as a last resort,” she said.