Page last updated at 00:12 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 01:12 UK

Prison violence 'up by one third'

Prison wardens at Styal prison reacting to an incident
The Howard League says prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by 36%

Violence in jails has risen by a third in five years, according to figures obtained by a prison charity.

The Howard League for Penal Reform says there were 40,000 acts of violence in English and Welsh prisons during 2008 - more than 100 incidents a day.

Director Frances Crook said the rise was "far above" what might be expected, blaming overcrowding and the imprisonment of mentally ill people.

But a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the figures were "misleading".

The figures were obtained by Liberal Democrat MP Paul Holmes and Conservative MP James Gray in answers to parliamentary questions .

Their figures claimed that between 2004 and 2008:

  • Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by 36% with a total of 56,517 incidents
  • Young offenders institutions saw an even more pronounced jump in violence with a 58% rise
  • Self-harm rose by a quarter, almost half the incidents involving women - despite females making up just 5% of the prison population

Ms Crook said: "This shocking rise in violence is far above what might be expected.

Frances Crook
These are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg
Frances Crook

"We lock up increasing numbers of men, women and children whose mental health problems and addictions will never be properly treated within our flooded jails.

"As these are recorded statistics, it is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg with real levels of assaults, rapes and arson much higher than the Prison Service is admitting."

The charity says individual prisons saw even higher rises - including a 1,200% jump in cases of arson at Reading young offender's institution.

Ms Crook continued: "Overcrowded and squalid conditions lead to violence and chaos.

"The answer to rising prison populations is not to build more failing jails, which churn out prisoners more dangerous from having spent time in our colleges of crime."

She added: "It is time for the government to look at wholesale reform of the penal system."

But a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "The use of assault and self harm data by the Howard League is misleading.

"It is not appropriate to add self harm and assault then infer the total is a measure of prison violence.

"Despite an increase in the number of prisoners convicted of violent offences, the percentage of all assaults that are considered serious remains stable at about 10%.

"There are community mental health teams working in 102 prisons and every prison has a violence reduction strategy."

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