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Tougher punishments considered for inmates who attack prison officers

Published 29/11/2016

Thousands of prison officers stopped working in protest over rising violence and self-harm behind bars
Thousands of prison officers stopped working in protest over rising violence and self-harm behind bars

Prisoners who attack officers could face tougher punishments under efforts to tackle the jail safety crisis.

Ministers are looking at measures to ensure that inmates convicted over assaults on staff are given consecutive rather than concurrent sentences.

This would mean those responsible would serve extra time on top of any existing jail term.

Surging levels of violence behind bars in England and Wales came to a head recently when thousands of officers stopped work in protest amid claims the system was "in meltdown".

In the year to June assaults on staff increased by 43% to 5,954, with 697 of these recorded as serious.

Justice minister Sam Gyimah stressed action was being taken to ensure "swift justice" is delivered when staff are on the end of violence as he was quizzed by MPs about the Government's prison reform strategy.

"For example, I am looking at making sure that where there is an assault against a prison officer and someone is prosecuted, that they get a consecutive rather than a concurrent sentence," he told the Commons Justice Committee.

A number of high-profile incidents - including the escape of two inmates who were later recaptured - have sparked intense scrutiny of the state of the country's prisons.

The Government has unveiled a string of reforms in recent weeks including an extra 2,500 staff, as well as measures to stop drones dropping drugs into jails and to block the illegal use of mobile phones.

Ministers have secured an agreement with mobile operators over the "denial and disruption" of illegally held phones, starting in three prisons.

Nearly 15,000 handsets and Sim cards were recovered from jails in England and Wales last year - equivalent to 40 every day.

Mr Gyimah said they are used by criminal gangs to organise the trafficking into prisons of new psychoactive substances - drugs previously known as "legal highs" which have been identified as a major factor in the rise in violence.

Mobiles have also been used to "terrorise" victims and post on social media, the minister said.

Mr Gyimah also described hearing during a prison visit about how some inmates were using hot kettles to try to burn holes in windows so that items thrown over the walls could be reeled in using a piece of string.

Meanwhile, he said there was no work being carried out to "arbitrarily" reduce the prison population - which currently stands at around 85,000.

Overcrowding has been highlighted repeatedly by campaigners and earlier this month the Lord Chief Justice suggested more criminals could be punished without being jailed.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, told the committee that about 24% of prisoners are held in accommodation designed for fewer people than are in it.

And he warned this issue would not be resolved for several years.

Asked how quickly a situation where cells are only holding the number of people they were designed for could be reached, Mr Spurr said: "Not within this parliament or the next."

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