Nurses risking their safety in ‘dangerous, overcrowded’ prisons

After prison governors condemn government failure to address understaffing and overcrowding, RCN warns prison healthcare system is at risk of collapse
Prison nurses

Nurses are no longer willing to work in prisons that have become ‘dangerous, overcrowded warehouses’, the RCN has warned.

Demand for healthcare in prisons is growing, but nurse numbers
are down, says the RCN. Picture: Alamy

The college said it had received reports of nurses being held hostage during recent incidents, in a prison healthcare system on the verge of collapse.

RCN professional lead for criminal justice and learning disabilities Ann Norman was responding to a damning open letter from the Prison Governors Association.

In the letter, the association's president Andrea Albutt criticises government reforms within the prison service, as well as the failure to recruit staff or deal with capacity issues.


The warnings come after specialised police officers were called in to tackle riots at HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire on Tuesday and two weeks after the chief prisons inspector filed a highly critical report on safety, conditions and drugs in prisons.

Ms Norman said the decision to split policy decisions and operational control of offenders was ‘catastrophic for both prisoners and staff, including healthcare teams’.

‘There has been an 88% rise in assaults on prison staff over the past few years, and we’ve had reports of nurses being held hostage and a clinical manager losing their sight following a recent attack,’ she said.

‘Nurse numbers plummeting’

‘Nurses play an essential role in the justice system but their numbers are plummeting. Prisons have become dangerous, overcrowded warehouses, and nursing staff are no longer willing to put their safety at risk.’

Ms Norman added that without the care they need, prisoners face serious health risks. Mental health issues are of particular concern, with 113 suicides between April 2016 and March 2017, she said.

Demand for healthcare is growing because of the ageing prison population, she said, with 16% of inmates aged over 50.

‘The Ministry of Justice needs to heed the Prison Governors Association’s warning. Until prisons have the staff they need, the entire prison healthcare system is at risk of collapse,’ Ms Norman said.

‘Boost prison officer numbers’

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: ‘We know that our prisons have faced a number of long-standing challenges, which is why we have taken immediate action to boost prison officer numbers and have created Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.

‘We need to create calm and ordered environments to help ensure effective rehabilitation. We continue to work closely with the unions and all staff to help achieve these vital reforms and make prisons places of safety and reform.’

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