Chief Inspector's blog: are lockdowns the solution to prison violence?

Recent statistics on violence in jails appear to support the old prison saying that ‘happiness is door shaped’. COVID-19 restrictions meant that most prisoners, apart from a small number who were working, were locked in their cells for 22 or more hours a day. They were only unlocked in small groups that were not allowed to mix. Gyms, education, libraries and communal worship were all suspended.

Unsurprisingly, the result was a big reduction in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults from March 2020 to the following spring. This took levels of violence to where they were between 2005 and 2015, before the dramatic increases that came in the subsequent five years. The rate of assaults on officers however, fell more modestly to levels similar to 2017/18 (a year which had the third highest rate this century). Since prisons began to open up last summer, the rate of assaults between prisoners has shown a small increase, though the restrictions imposed in response to the Omicron wave will likely precipitate another fall.

Some major factors drove the increases in prison violence between 2015 and 2019. Data shows that between 2010 and 2015 the number of officers at bands 3–5 (the grades that do most frontline work) fell from 24,830 to 18,222. Surprisingly, perhaps, the rate of violence did not rise significantly during this period. In the following four years however, the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults doubled, despite the number of band 3–5 officers increasing to 22,630 by 2019.

The other big change between 2015 and 2019 was not just in the number of officers, but in their levels of experience. In 2015, 92% of officers had completed three or more years of service, but by 2019 – the most violent year on record – this number had fallen to just 58%.

The proportion of officers with at least three years’ experience has recently increased to 70% and this may have contributed to the small, pre-pandemic reduction in violence in 2019/20. This is not to say that officers who are inexperienced are not effective – on inspection, we see many outstanding professionals who are in their first or second year of service. But experience certainly counts in a difficult job, where de-escalating conflict is a key skill.

There is an undoubted link between drugs, debt, intimidation and violence. During the worst years, high levels of psychoactive substances (synthetic drugs such as Spice) found their way into prisons as sophisticated criminals exploited demand from many vulnerable prisoners for drugs that got them through their sentence – known in prison parlance as ‘bird killers’. New body and mail scanners have certainly, recently, helped to reduce the flow of drugs and the associated violence.

Violence itself also generates its own momentum. Prisoners who have a tendency towards aggression are more likely to behave this way in an environment where their peers are more violent. This creates a cycle that leads to prisoners feeling less safe and more likely to react violently to a real or perceived threat – if you think someone is coming for you, you may decide to get your retaliation in first.

Lockdowns provided an opportunity to reboot the system and break the alarming cycle of violence. Since the pandemic began, we have heard much talk of new prison regimes that will retain the small groups in which prisoners lived during lockdown to keep prisons safer. However, if prisons continue with this policy it is inevitable that most prisoners will continue to spend long periods of time behind their doors – unless there is an extension of the core day. In most jails, prisoners are locked up for the night at around 5pm. To keep prisoners active until later in the evening would require more officers on duty and potentially an increase in spending. Money is being spent on new prisons, to hold more prisoners in England and Wales, but it is unlikely that we’ll see a significant increase in the staff-prisoner ratio.

This takes us back, therefore, to the vital importance of allowing prisoners out of cells to receive visits, attend work, training and education, take exercise and prepare for eventual release under the supervision of experienced staff, with the essential ‘jail-craft’ that they can impart to newer officers.

Suppressing violence through lockdowns is not the long-term answer to violence. Before 2015, violence levels were consistently lower, despite prisoners generally being out of their cells for longer. Recent inspections have shown wide variation in the amount of time prisoners spend out of their cells, even in establishments of the same category. This has been dependent on the staffing situation, levels of COVID-19 risk tolerance and above all, the ambition and quality of the governor and the senior leadership team.

What the data and our reports show is that rather than returning to more restricted regimes, violence is likely to reduce where there are enough experienced officers in post and strong leadership. This is complemented by a robust strategy for preventing drugs coming into prisons and meaningful opportunities for prisoners to work, learn and socialise in a way that helps them to prepare for a successful life on release.


Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons