Prison violence: when breaking records is not a cause for celebration

Thursday 26th October 2017

Record breaking is supposed to be a cause for celebration. But there isn’t much to celebrate in record increases in UK prison violence. 

  • Assaults have increased by 14%, reaching a record high of 27,193 incidents in the 12 months to June 2017
  • Assaults on staff have soared by 25% to 7,437. This is a new record
  • There were 19,678 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults (a 10% increase), with serious assaults up by 18% - both of these are record highs

If this isn’t cause enough for concern, the number of young offenders who re-offend is rising, and the cost per prisoner is getting more expensive.

It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of life in a UK prison, and it does little to inspire faith in the ability of the criminal justice system to make prisons a place of safety for both staff and prisoners. Without that basic need in place, rehabilitation is near on impossible. 

Yet we believe there is hope.

We have 20 years' experience working in prisons and young offender institutions across the UK, and in this time we have met dedicated individuals and organisations who are working hard on the ground to bring about change.

One example that springs to mind is Tyrone, a prisoner who was recently nominated for our Lighting the Fire awards for his role as the Lead Coordinator of The KeepOut Crime Diversion Scheme at HMP Coldingley. Tyrone had been successful in his application for parole which meant he was allowed to move to open conditions. However, on hearing the news he decided to stay and help train the next Lead Coordinator instead of moving straight away.

It’s the people and stories such as these which motivate us in our work - providing conflict management training and support for young offenders, prisoners and the professionals who work with them to reduce violence, improve relationships and bring about cultural change.

Alongside our training, our Peaceful Prisons Project builds on our knowledge and experience to develop an intervention to reduce violence in prisons. The project is guided by an Advisory Group chaired by Teresa Clarke, Deputy Director of Custody for the Midlands. Following extensive research, the project identified five key drivers of violence which vary from prison to prison. They are:

  • Debt. When they first arrive, prisoners may not have access to funds. They need to borrow money, which is lent at a rate of 'double-bubble' (where payback is double the amount that was borrowed). Debts can spiral rapidly and lead to conflict and violence. The black market also features heavily in the debt cycle, with strong links to drugs, including 'spice'
  • Gangs. Gangs can form around the cities where prisoners come from, ethnicity and prison location, e.g. wings or landings. Disputes which start outside prison may be carried inside, or people not usually involved in gangs may look for protection
  • Bullying. A widespread problem, bullying often involves prisoners who are seen as weak, vulnerable or inadequate
  • Staff and prisoner relationships. These relationships have suffered as a result of reduced staff numbers
  • Shame. Numerous studies and our own research identify shame as a driver for aggressive and violent behaviour, especially when linked with low self-worth, fear and feeling disrespected.

We argue that the overriding factor which creates a violent environment is the prison culture, which can exacerbate all of the drivers of violence listed above. In order to reduce violence a positive culture needs to be cultivated.

We are launching three pilot projects in two different prisons which aim to bring about sustained cultural change. Working across the prison, from the senior management team to prisoners, we will determine the specific drivers of violence. Our trainers will be embedded within one wing to build rapport and carry out focus groups, with a view to creating community circles involving both prisoners and prison staff. Representatives will be selected to take a leading and ongoing role in conflict management in the wing.

This project is ongoing and we will share our learning and key findings. If you would like more information please contact

Find out more about our work in the criminal justice system here.

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