Prisons 'increasingly dangerous as violence soars'

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The Independent Online

Violence in prisons increased 600 per cent between 1996 and 2005 leaving them in "crisis" and "increasingly dangerous", the Liberal Democrats said today.

Party leader Sir Menzies Campbell called for "effective solutions" after Home Office figures showed that violent incidents had risen from 2,342 in 1996 to 13,771 in 2005.

Sir Menzies made the call ahead of a meeting tomorrow with the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, to discuss what the party believes is the link between prison overcrowding and violent incidents.

But the Prison Service says the rate of serious assaults in prisons "may be stabilising" and that the increased number of assaults could be due to improved recording procedures and confidence stemming from its Violence Reduction Strategy. There were no "quick fixes" to the problem, a spokeswoman added.

Last week Ms Owers, in her annual report, accused ministers of failing to plan for the spiralling number of offenders and said prisons were in "serious crisis".

She said: "I can't say other than we have a serious crisis and one which is impacting on the ability of prisons to do rehabilitation.

"It is also making prisons riskier places to run. It is normally considered good practice to build an ark before the flood rather than during it or after it."

Today Sir Menzies said: "Ten years of Labour mismanagement of the prison and criminal justice system have left our prisons in crisis and the public at risk.

"If you keep putting people on an already crowded ship eventually the ship will start to sink.

"Prisons are so full they have become ineffective and increasingly dangerous.

"We need effective solutions. Liberal Democrat proposals will reduce the prison population, cut reoffending and ensure greater safety for the British people."

Today's figures, obtained by the party's home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg, show that in 2005 there were 2,971 violent incidents against prison officers compared with 551 in 1996. Violent incidents between prisoners were 10,800 in 2005 compared to 1,791 in 1996.

The Liberal Democrats say they would use the Government's planned £1.5 billion expenditure for building new prisons into extending the provision of secure and semi-secure mental health treatment for offenders.

They would widen drug treatment availability, triple the numbers of prisoners working, make education and training compulsory, force non-violent criminals to work in their own communities and promote restorative justice for young offenders.

A Prison Service spokeswoman pointed to its Violence Reduction Strategy, launched in 2004 which includes anti-bullying work, directing prisons to analyse patterns of violence and bullying and measures to improve personal safety.

She added: "All prisoners undergo a cell-sharing risk assessment on their first night in custody and on subsequent cell moves.

"This assessment seeks to prevent cell-sharing that may lead to prisoner-on-prisoner assaults."

She went on: "There are no quick fixes to the problem of violence in prisons.

"The increased number of recorded assaults may be a result of prisoners feeling more confident to report incidents because of the Violence Reduction Strategy, and/or improved recording since a new key performance indicator on serious assaults was introduced in 2003.

"Detailed analysis of statistics recording serious assaults in prisons shows that the rate may be stabilising."