How violence is falling at Preston Prison during pandemic

Far fewer assaults were recorded at Preston Prison in the six months to June compared to the same period last year.

Wednesday, 4th November 2020, 3:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th November 2020, 3:46 pm

The Prison Officers' Association says violence in prisons across England and Wales has dropped partly because gangs are mixing less due to measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

But the charity Inquest warns this overlooks the harm done to inmates “languishing in conditions amounting to solitary confinement”.

HMP Preston recorded 91 assaults between January and June, provisional data from the Ministry of Justice shows.

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HMP Preston recorded an average of an assault every other day

This was down from 161 over the same six months in 2019, according to provisional figures published last year.

At Preston Prison, 15 assaults in the six months to June were classed as serious.

This can include sexual assaults, an attack resulting in severe injury such as stab wounds or broken bones, or one that requires hospital admission as an inpatient.

There were 70 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, and 22 on staff.

These may not equal the total number of assaults recorded as officers can be assaulted in a prisoner-on-prisoner assault, while some attacks may involve visitors.

Prisons across England and Wales recorded 11,800 assaults in the six months to June – thousands fewer than the 16,800 seen last year.

In March, prisons went into lockdown as the coronavirus spread, with many prisoners kept in their cells for 23 hours a day, visits from family and friends cancelled, and educational programmes suspended.

Restrictions were later eased, but POA national chairman Mark Fairhurst said that prisoners being allowed to socialise in smaller groups to reduce contact had been “a blessing in disguise”.

The union’s assistant general secretary Mick Pimblett said fewer prisoners being out of their cells at any one time meant gangs were mixing less, leading to less bullying and vulnerable prisoners feeling safer.

He added: “Not only have we kept prisoners relatively safe from Covid, violence has dramatically reduced.

“We must build on this success by ensuring that our prisons are adequately resourced, staff prisoner relationships continue to improve and we cater for the mental health of all who live and work in our prisons.”

Inquest, which campaigns on prisoner rights, said this ignored the potential damage to inmates kept under “indefinite lockdown”.

The group’s director Deborah Coles said: “Across the prison estate, men, women and children are languishing in conditions amounting to solitary confinement. The detrimental impact to physical and mental health cannot be underestimated.

“Extreme restrictions are being justified as the only way to contain the pandemic in prisons. This is not the case.

“To reduce ongoing harm we need to dramatically reduce the prison population. This is more important than ever to save lives.”

She added that resources must be reallocated so that no prisoner is released into “poverty or a lack of health and welfare support”.

A prison service spokesman said: “Assaults were falling before the pandemic following a concerted effort to drive down violence – including a £100 million investment in tough security measures.

“We introduced necessary restrictions on daily life, which have saved many lives during the pandemic, and these have been safely eased in line with the latest public health advice.”