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‘Shocking’ impact of violence and drug use on prison staff

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

The survey, carried out in May this year, found that 14% of respondents who reported experiencing recent physical violence had been assaulted more than 10 times in the past year.

“Violence against staff should be seen as exceptional, and always unacceptable”

Brian Morton

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.

Meanwhile, 63% of survey respondents reported feeling unsafe at work in the last 12 months.

The findings from the survey were published today by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance (JUPA), which brings together nine unions and professional organisations with members that provide services in prisons.

The alliance includes organisations that represent healthcare staff such as the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, Unite, the GMB and the British Medical Association.

In addition, the survey also looked at the effect of exposure to psychoactive substances, including spice, on staff.

Over half of staff, 53%, said they had been exposed and 39% reported becoming ill as a result.

Symptoms described by staff included light-headedness, dizziness, confusion and tiredness, nausea and vomiting, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and anxiety and paranoia.

The survey was completed by over 1,600 staff in over 100 prisons in England and Wales.

JUPA said it was prompted by widespread employee concern about the effects of understaffing, including the loss of experienced staff, overcrowding and drug use in prisons.

Only 9.9% of respondents said they were “confident” or “reasonably confident” that things will improve in the next 12 months, noted the alliance.

Based on the survey results, JUPA is calling for urgent action from the government, prison service and other employers in the sector.

It wants tougher responses to violent incidents, including use of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (offences) Act 2018, and better health and safety reporting, including a single reporting system.

It also wants action to prevent exposure to psychoactive substances, joint work between employers and unions to examine the causes and effects of violence against staff, as well as more prison officers and other personnel to ensure safe and effective staffing levels.

The alliance highlighted that prisons had suffered a “drain” in experienced staff in recent years, with official data showing that 40% of prison officers currently 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”, it warned.

“Listening to them is the first step towards building a prison service that is fit for purpose”

Brian Morton

Brian Morton, co-chair of the JUPA and national officer at the RCN, said: “Prisons will always be tough environments, but violence against staff should be seen as exceptional, and always unacceptable.

“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% feel things have got worse in the last 12 months,” said Mr Morton.

“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,” he said, stating that the situation “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,” he said. “Listening to them is the first step towards building a prison service that is fit for purpose.”

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