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Prison violence could be under-reported, warns watchdog

Violence in Britain's prisons may be even worse than previously thought because incidents are being under-reported, a European watchdog has warned.

Assaults, self-harm and suicides behind bars have all surged to record levels as a safety crisis engulfed jails in England and Wales.

In a report to be published on Wednesday, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) raised concerns that the picture could be more serious still.

Despite the considerable number of instruments established to capture data regarding violent incidents, there were "systemic and structural weaknesses" in the documentation process, according to the study.

Members of the committee, which is part of the Council of Europe, visited HMP Doncaster and HMP Pentonville as part of their inquiry last spring.

The assessment said that at both establishments, the delegation " gained the impression that the actual number of violent incidents appreciably exceeded the number recorded".

It added: " This issue appeared to be particularly acute at Doncaster Prison, where the delegation established that some violent incidents had either not been recorded or recorded as being less serious than they were in practice.

"Moreover, the delegation observed first-hand that violent incidents were not always reported by staff.

"While the number of recorded violent incidents at all prisons visited was alarmingly high, the CPT believes that these figures under-record the actual number of incidents and consequently fail to afford a true picture of the severity of the situation."

Ministers have launched a major reform programme in a bid to overhaul the prison system after a spate of serious disturbances and worsening safety standards.

In the year to September, assaults in jails in England and Wales reached a record high of 25,049 - equivalent to more than 60 every day, the most recent official statistics show.

In a highly critical assessment, the committee warned that violence is "spiralling out of control" and described overcrowding as "chronic".

Its report said: "Over the last 25 years, the prison population has nearly doubled, and almost all adult prisons now operate at or near full operational capacity and well above their certified normal capacity."

Unless "determined action" is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the "regime improvements" envisaged by the authorities' reform agenda will remain unattainable, the paper warned.

Regimes in all prison establishments visited were said to be "inadequate", with a considerable number of prisoners spending up to 22 hours per day locked up in their cells.

At one youth offenders institution, some juveniles could spend up to 23 and a half hours a day locked up alone in their cells, according to the committee, which argued that holding youngsters in such conditions amounts to "inhuman and degrading treatment".

The report said: " The cumulative effect of certain systemic failings was that none of the establishments visited could be considered safe for prisoners or staff."

It also claimed that, at both Doncaster and Pentonville, operational safety had been compromised in part due to low staffing levels or inadequate deployment of staff on wings.

John Wadham, chairman of the UK National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), a collection of bodies which have powers to inspect or monitor places of detention, said: "The CPT report gives the NPM much to reflect on. A great deal of what they say echoes our own concerns.

"Our research shows that more than 124,000 people are detained in the UK on any given day. This report is an important reminder that there is much to be done to improve the conditions in which people are held and how they are treated.

"I am particularly concerned by their finding that a number of children held in one young offender institution spent 23.5 hours a day locked in their cells. I agree with the CPT that such conditions amount to inhuman and degrading treatment."

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