More than 70 prisoners were released in error over the past year as assaults and self-harm inside jails hit a record high, according to concerning new statistics.
Statistics released for the 2016/17 financial year by the Ministry of Justice showed high levels of violence and suicide amid warnings over deteriorating safety in Britain’s jails.
David Lidington, the Justice Secretary, said improving safety was his “top priority” after just a month in the post.
“These figures reinforce how crucial it is that we make progress as quickly as possible,” he added.
“As the chief inspector of prisons rightly observed in his annual report last week, we cannot achieve successful reform and rehabilitation unless our prisons are safe and secure – and this is something I am committed to achieving.
“I have seen first-hand the challenges our dedicated and hardworking prison staff face. Boosting the frontline is critical to achieving safety and the number of prison officers we are recruiting is rising, with the number of new prison officers joining the service at its highest level since 2010. ”
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The figures for England and Wales show 71 prisoners were released in released in error in the year, the highest since records started in 2006.
On average, inmates were freed because of blunders more than once a week, including 58 who were released from jail, 13 during escort or at courts.
Another 15 prisoners escaped from custody – four from prisons, eight from “contractor escort”, and three from National Offender Management Service escort, but none involving the most dangerous category of prisoner.
Escapees are pursued by police but prisoners released in error are not considered to be unlawfully at large, according to the Government’s report on the figures.
“They are not culpable and may be unaware that they have not completed their sentence or have outstanding warrant,” it said.
“Depending on the circumstances of the case, they may not be actively pursued for return to custody.”
A prisoner is officially classed as having been released in error if they are wrongly discharged from an establishment or court when they should have remained in custody.
Examples of errors can include misplaced warrants for imprisonment or remand, recall notices not being acted on, sentence miscalculations or discharging the wrong person on escort.
Assaults increased to a new high of 26,643 incidents in the year to March 2017, mostly between prisoners but including a record 7,159 attacks on prison staff.
Around 14 per cent of all assaults were classified as serious, with serious assaults on staff have trebling since 2013 to reach 805 in the year to March.
There were 97 suicides, including six women – a small decrease of 10 from the previous year – but self-harm reached a new record high of 40,414 incidents in the year to March, up by more than 5,700.
The figures showed that self-harm is twice as prevalent in female prisons, but incidents in male-only jails were more likely to result in hospital treatment.
There were a total of 316 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to June, down from 322 in the previous year, including two murders, 189 deaths due to natural causes, 28 recorded as “other” and 25 that have not yet been classified.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the cause of some deaths remained uncertain following toxicology tests and post-mortems, meaning they would not be determined until inquests that can take several months.
Almost a quarter of prisoners were being held in conditions officially classified as “crowded” and the number of positive random drug tests reached 9.3 per cent.
The Ministry of Justice said the figure was at its highest level since 2006 “but is predominantly driven by more prevalent cannabis use”.
The report warned of a “resurgence” of the drug, with inmates also taking opiates, like heroine and methadone, and buprenorphine, while new testing is being introduced for new psychoactive substances, formerly known as “legal highs”.
Campaigners and watchdogs have issued a catalogue of warnings about the state of prisons as safety measures have deteriorated.
Last week, Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, said staffing levels in many establishments are too low to maintain order and described the conditions some inmates are held in as “squalid, dirty and disgraceful”.
The Prison Reform Trust said the figures showed that the prison system is “nowhere near being safe for those who live and work within it”.
Peter Dawson, the campaign group’s director, said: “The appalling loss of life and toll of despair requires something more immediate than the promise of more staff and new prisons.
“In the short term, the provision of much cheaper and easier access to a legitimate phone system would make a day to day difference – and provide some consolation to the families of prisoners wondering if their loved ones are safe inside.”