'Nothing can train you' - Shocking rise in assaults at Suffolk prison
PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 May 2019 | UPDATED: 09:29 05 May 2019
A prison workers' union rep has warned life on the frontline has spiralled "out of control" as new figures reveal the number of assaults at HMP Highpoint have more than doubled since 2011.
The data, from the Ministry of Justice, shows the total number of assaults on both staff and prisoners has increased by more than 130% since Highpoint merged with Edmunds Hill eight years ago.
The 'safety in custody' quarterly statistics show the number of assault incidents leapt from 157 in 2011 to 370 in 2018 – with the number of serious assaults quadrupling in the same time frame.
Jackie Marshall, Eastern representative for the Professional Officers' Association (POA), said the situation is now “out of control” – with some prisoners locking themselves in their cells out of fear.
She said the main issues could be traced back to a lack of staff – especially experienced officers, and serious retention problems.
“We do feel under strain because we are on our own a lot more than we would have been before,” she said.
“They took all these prison staff off us. Staff were getting battered as well as the prisoners in their care.”
While a new recruitment drive has helped bolster numbers to compensate for major cuts since 2009/10, Ms Marshall said frontline officers are still struggling.
“Unfortunately in some establishments we can't keep staff,” she said.
“Retention is a major, major problem – a lot of that is down to the levels of violence in the establishments.
“The new payscale they have brought in, particularly in the south east [...] you can work in McDonald's for that and you are not putting your life on the line.”
She added that prisoners were often just as frightened.
“We have prisoners which we call 'self-isolated',” she explained.
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“They will lock themselves in their cells.”
The change mirrors the national trend, with the number of assaults per 1,000 prisoners rising from 180 in 2011 to 411 in 2018.
This is equivalent to an additional 18,783 assaults at prisons nationwide.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Government found last year that spending on prisons nationwide is 16% lower in real terms than in 2009/10.
Ms Marshall added that drug dealing, sometimes facilitated by drones, often fuel assaults behind bars.
“I think with drugs you bring violence, because prisoners get into debt with other prisoners,” she said.
“Spice (synthetic cannabis) is a major problem because it was a new drug – detecting it was a problem for us to start with.
“It affects people differently. Some of them get very violent. We have had quite a few prisoners found unconscious in their cells. We have had quite a few deaths.”
She said the impact on staff is enormous, with many traumatised by the “horrific scenes” they encounter.
“Nothing can train you,” she said,
“You can only learn on the job. Nobody sees what we do. We had a member of staff that was struck down by a prisoner – prisoners are biting staff every day.
“It is not just the injuries you see colleagues getting, it is the injuries you see other prisoners getting.
“It just make you wonder how close we are going to come to an officer being killed.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Violence across the prison estate remains unacceptably high, but there are early signs of progress.
“It's particularly encouraging to see a quarterly drop in prisoner on prisoner assaults at HMP Highpoint and we will continue to prioritise improving safety and security – making conditions safer for prison officers and prisoners, and ultimately protecting the public.”