The Observer, Sunday 29 June 2014
Watchdogs voice safety concerns over overcrowding, after HMP Bristol inmate was kicked unconscious and left in a coma
Chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick warned earlier this month that there had been a political and policy failure with regard to the prison system. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
Fears that a rising prison population is jeopardising safety in the nation's jails has intensified after it emerged that an inmate at HMP Bristol was in a critical condition after being kicked unconscious by another prisoner.
The inmate, who remains in a coma, was attacked on Thursday by a prisoner known to have mental health problems, who was on remand having been arrested for strangling a woman to death in a care home.
It is understood that paperwork alerting prison staff to the attacker's mental health had not been shared with them.
With prison reform groups and penal experts uniting to warn that the prison estate is under pressure due to the closure of a number of jails and constrained budgets, concerns are mounting that the country's jails are becoming unsafe.
A series of rooftop protests in jails across the country have triggered security fears as the population behind bars continues to grow. The number of prisoners held in Britain's jails has risen by 885 since 9 May, and now stands at 84,684. The total useable capacity in the prison estate is 85,526. If a similar increase was repeated over the next two months the prison system would run out of room completely.
Earlier this month the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, warned that there had been a "political and policy failure" in the prison system.
The latest Ministry of Justice statistics show that 74 out of 119 prison establishments in operational use in England and Wales are overcrowded, with the prison estate as a whole holding more than 9,000 prisoners than it was designed to hold.
The secretary of state for justice, Chris Grayling, has instructed 40 public sector prisons to find accommodation by August for 440 more prisoners. But according to reports, all but six of these prisons are operating at overcrowded levels. A further 600 extra places are also being purchased in private prisons.
However, there are fears that the spaces may not become available in time.
"The rapid increase in prison numbers over the past few weeks is the latest in a series of warning signs which ministers must heed of a prison service under unprecedented strain," said Juliet Lyon, director of the prison reform trust. "The attack in Bristol is down to resource problems," said Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert. "Too many prisoners with mental health problems are ending up in the prison estate, and there is an insufficient number of staff to supervise them."