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AN INVESTIGATION must be launched into the “escalating health and safety emergency” of rising violence against prison workers, a coalition of nine trade unions demanded today.
The Safe Inside campaign was launched by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance (Jupa) after its survey of prison staff revealed shocking levels of threats and violence by inmates.
The number of attacks against prison staff is at a record level. 10,213 attacks were recorded in 2018 — an average of almost 28 a day — according to the latest official figures.
Jupa, which represents the majority of staff across prisons, also called for tougher responses to violent incidents and a significant increase in the number of prison officers.
The unions — the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers (POA), Unite, the University and College Union (UCU), the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Public and Commercial Services Union, GMB, and Unison — are working on the issue together for the first time.
A survey of Jupa members — including officers, teachers, medics, admin workers and cleaners — revealed that over a quarter were victims of physical violence within the last year.
One in seven staff members who were recently attacked said they have been assaulted more than 10 times in the past year.
Fifty-seven per cent of those who reported an assault to their bosses were dissatisfied with the action taken. In a further 20 per cent of cases respondents said no action was taken at all.
Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of survey respondents reported feeling unsafe at work in the last 12 months.
Less than 10 per cent said they believed the situation would improve over the next year.
More than half of respondents said they were exposed to psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabinoid Spice. A Unite spokeswoman described the issue as “massive” but said that there is a risk that members of the public would underestimate its effects.
Workers exposed to the secondhand smoke in confined spaces are often left unable to drive home at the end of their shift, she told the Star.
Over a third (39 per cent) of these workers reported becoming ill as a result of exposure. Symptoms included light-headedness, dizziness, confusion and tiredness (97 per cent), nausea and vomiting (49 per cent), increased heart rate and blood pressure (34.5 per cent) and anxiety and paranoia (28 per cent).
Jupa co-chair and RCN national officer Brian Morton said: “Drug use is literally poisoning the atmosphere in our prisons, forcing some staff to carry out their duties while experiencing secondary effects.
“This is a new low in the history of our penal system and must be addressed as a matter of priority.”
He criticised poor reporting mechanisms for violence and failures to investigate its causes and consequences.
He added: “Prisons will always be tough environments, but violence against staff should be seen as exceptional, and always unacceptable.”
POA deputy general secretary Joe Simpson said politicians must take heed and immediate action to make prisons safer.
He said: “As this research clearly shows, all prison workers are currently facing an escalating health and safety emergency.
“No-one should have to go to work knowing they could be seriously injured — or worse — just for doing their job.”
UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said it was “appalling” that education workers in prisons are routinely at risk of attack and exposure to harmful substances.
He added: “Prison educators play a vital role in rehabilitating offenders and should not have to run the gauntlet of violence and drug exposure when they go to work.”
Over a dozen cross-party MPs have tabled a parliamentary motion in support of the new campaign which includes a demand for a reversal of the dangerous cuts to prison budgets made since 2010.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “It is a damning indictment of the government’s failure to get a grip on violence in our prisons that trade unions have had to launch this coordinated campaign.
“Cuts to prisons staff and budgets have unleashed an epidemic of violence. From teachers and nurses to prison officers the level of violence faced by staff in prisons is simply unacceptable.
“The government needs to listen to hardworking staff who keep our prisons running and address this crisis with an emergency plan with new funds to make our prisons safe.”
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