New research shows surge in violence in Welsh prisons

Image caption,
Swansea Prison is one of the most overcrowded jails in England and Wales

Violence in prisons has surged to record levels in Wales in a "pressure cooker" environment, according to new figures from the Ministry of Justice.

Research from BBC Wales' Newyddion 9 shows incidents of assault and serious assault increased by 53% in Welsh prisons between 2015 and 2016 alone.

In comparison, there was a 23% increase in England in the same time period.

These figures include both prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and attacks on prison staff.

In 2016 there were a total of 1,266 incidents of assault and serious assault in four Welsh prisons - HMP Cardiff, HMP Swansea, HMP Usk/Prescoed and HMP Parc, in Bridgend - up from 830 in the previous year.

Attacks against prison officers rose more dramatically, increasing 108% from 184 in 2015 to 382 in 2016.

Image caption,
Reported assaults on prison staff more than doubled between 2015 and 2016

Andy Baxter, Wales spokesman for the Prison Officers' Association, said officers need pepper spray, describing a "perfect storm" of conditions.

He said: "We've seen a huge reduction in the number of experienced staff, we've seen the emergence of psychoactive substances in prisons, we're also seeing more people in society being imprisoned for violent offences.

"We're 30 years behind the police, the police have carried pepper spray for 30 years and it's time prison officers were awarded the same protections."

"Prisoners held hostage"

Newyddion 9 spoke to one former prisoner at HMP Swansea last year. He described the atmosphere as a "pressure cooker", with prisoners with "serious mental health issues" in the "worst possible place for them" and high risk prisoners mixing with low risk prisoners in Swansea.

"You've got people who've been convicted of murder being mixed up with people who've been convicted of petty crime, sharing cells," he said. "There were quite a few scenarios where prisoners were held hostage."

The man described an environment where rehabilitation "isn't enabled or even encouraged", making "prisoners feel hopeless".

"Violence is definitely inevitable because the welfare of the prisoners are the lowest of priorities, and that's why there's under staffing, because... the welfare of the staff members aren't put at the top. This isn't just a problem of prisoners, this is an issue of prison staff as well who are under-trained and undermanned," he said.

Image caption,
HMP Parc, Bridgend has the second highest number of violent incidents in England and Wales, with 881 in 2016

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said it was "urgently" looking at ways to reduce the figures, including investing £100m to hire 2,500 additional prison officers.

"HMP Berwyn is performing well since it opened and represents a key part of our £1.3bn investment to reform and modernise the prison estate," she said. "There has been a phased introduction of prisoners since it opened and there is no evidence to suggest larger prisons perform worse than smaller establishments."

She added the MoJ was implementing more safety measures, including 5,600 body-worn cameras for staff and piloting a scheme for incapacitate spray at four sites.

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