Violence "unacceptably high" in Leeds prison where assaults on staff have risen by 132%

Have your say

Assaults on staff working at HMP Leeds rose by 132 per cent between 2016 and 2018 according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice.

In 2016 there were 90 assaults on staff which rose to 206 in 2017 and 209 last year.

HM Leeds Prison, Armley, Leeds.

HM Leeds Prison, Armley, Leeds.

- > Police reveal the 10 worst antisocial behaviour hotspots in Leeds according to latest 2019 figures

This follows a trend for increased violence throughout the prison which saw prisoner on prisoner assaults also rise by 35 per cent over the same time frame.

Two former prison officers and the chairman of the POA, the prison worker's union, have said that cuts from the conservative government are responsible for the increase in assaults.

Mark Fairhurst, national chairman of the POA said: "Since 2010 we've been facing austerity cuts which totalled £900 million, which means big prisons like Leeds have to operate with around a 40 per cent cut in operational staff.

Tempus Novo founders Steve Freer, and Val Wawrosz, former prison officers, now working with ex-convicts to help them back into employment.

Tempus Novo founders Steve Freer, and Val Wawrosz, former prison officers, now working with ex-convicts to help them back into employment.

"We're getting more violent offenders and less staff to look after them."

Mr Fairhurst explained 7,000 staff were cut from the prison service across England and Wales which meant that dedicated search teams, dog teams and intelligence gathering projects no longer exist in many prisons.

Steve Freer and Val Wawrosz worked as prison officers in HMP Leeds for three decades and continue to work closely with the prison through their charity Tempus Novo, which works with employers across Yorkshire to encourage them to hire risk-assessed former prisoners and give them a second chance.

Mr Freer said: "They’re in the worse place they’ve ever been, prisons.

HMP Leeds in Armley.

HMP Leeds in Armley.

“This governor has done as good a job as he can with the resources he’s got but the cuts in 2010 got rid of a lot of the staff that had the experience of dealing with violent situations.

"Now a high percentage of staff working in Leeds have got less than 12 months experience."

Mr Wawrosz added: "Many of the new staff they've hired to replace the old ones are 19 and 20.

"They don't have the life experience to know how to deal with aggression because they've never had to."

- > Elderly man taken to hospital after Leeds flat fire

The former workers explained HMP Leeds is a category B. inner-city urban prison, many of which suffer from the same issues with violence due to a high turnover of inmates.

They say this coupled with a reduction in staff has lead to a breakdown in relationships.

"Around 50 per cent are on remand and anxious to get their trial," Mr Freer explained, "And the rest are waiting to get moved on to somewhere they can get their heads down and do some education and development.

"There's a constant churn of people from the courts."

Mr Wawrosz continued: "Men are getting a new cellmate every 48 hours in some cases.

"Relationships are everything in prisons but at Leeds staff are running around like headless chickens trying to do their jobs and they don’t have time to form those relationships.

“There can be 200 men on a wing with five staff.

“Frustrations build because the prisoners feel they can’t get help from the officers and violence erupts.”

The staff to prisoner ratio is also a concern for the POA.

Mr Fairhurst said: "We want to see a reduction in ratios, currently it is around one staff member for 30 prisoners which is far too high.

"We want to see three staff per landing in each jail."

The latest population of the prison was 1055 in March 2019, just 157 inmates below the maximum capacity and significantly higher than the desired uncrowded capacity of 609.

In August 2010, then prisons minister Rory Stewart launched the 10 Prisons Project with the aim of challenging violent and disruptive behaviour in the country's most challenging institutions, including Leeds.

The project included £10 million funding to fight drugs, improve security and, crucially, boost leadership capabilities through new training.

- > True crime documentary turns spotlight on murder of Leeds schoolteacher Ann Maguire

Currently training is an issue, say Mr Freer and Mr Wawrosz.

Mr Freer said: "Training is a big issue, the approach to training is all, understandably, security based.

"Very little is rehabilitation. It’s all punitive measures which people don't respond to.

"There needs to be more in place to rehabilitate the offenders."

Mr Fairhurst said the impact assaults have of staff can be significant leading to high sickness levels, PTSD, stress, depression and in serious incidents, life-changing injuries.

Mr Wawrosz explained “Unless you’ve been on the landings and taken the abuse, you’ll never know what it’s like.

“We need to provide safe places, and at the minute that’s questionable.

“It’s not the staff’s fault, they’re trying their best but they’re like lambs to the slaughter.”

Mr Freer concluded: “It’s horrendous the situation and it isn’t going to get better overnight, even if you put the money in it’ll take ten years to get back to where were were when we joined”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Violence across the prison estate remains unacceptably high, but there are early signs of progress.

"It’s particularly encouraging to see a quarterly drop in violence at HMP Leeds and we will continue to prioritise improving safety and security - making conditions safer for prison officers and prisoners, and ultimately protecting the public.”