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Issue of Prisoner-on-prisoner Violence

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3203 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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A briefing paper focusing on prisoner-on-prisoner violence in prisons in England and Wales


Prisons should be a safe environment with a focus on reform and keeping people safe, not only the public but other inmates and staff that are present in the prisons (Ministry of Justice, 2016). 

This paper will focus on prison violence, solely focusing on prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  The focus will be on prisoner-on-prisoner violence in prisons in England and Wales due to the large number of statistics available on this.  This paper also aims to understand possible reasons that prisoners commit violent offences against one another, and there is a large amount of research in this area (Rocheleau, 2015).  To gain a better understanding of what this entails, it is important to understand what ‘violence’ is defined as by the World Health Organisation:

“The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person or against a group or community, that either results in or has high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation…” (World Health Organisation, 2002:5)

Violence between prisoners can also be a method of ‘bullying’, therefore to understand prison violence, a definition of bullying by the HM prison service (2004) will make this clearer:

“Conduct motivated by a desire to hurt, threaten or frighten someone.  It can be physical, verbal, psychological or emotional…” (Kimmett, 2005:391)

This report will mainly focus on multiple reports conducted by the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Reform Trust in order to display statistics available on prisoner-on-prisoner violence and assaults and to assess the security within prisons in England and Wales.  These will be outlined below in the order of the context and importance of the issue of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, risk factors that contribute to this, institutional predictors of prisoner on prisoner violence, reporting of assaults and whether it is reliable and finally some focus on policy and whether recommendations should be made. 

Context and importance

In order to discuss the importance of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, it is important to consider statistics related to this topic.  England and wales have an extremely high imprisonment rate of 141 per 100,000 of the total prison population (Prison Reform Trust, 2018). 

Below are statistics from the Ministry of Justice (2018b), and these statistics compare the yearly rate of assault incidents in prisons in England and wales in all institutions, and distinguish whether the incidents are that of a serious assault.  As seen in the statistics, there are a high amount of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults which have been reported, and a high amount of serious assaults also and these appear to be higher in male establishments than in female establishments (Ministry of Justice, 2018b). 

Source: (Ministry of Justice, 2018)

The data shows that more than twice the amount of serious assaults have been reported since March 2014 in all establishments, with a majority of these incidents occurring in male establishments (Ministry of Justice, 2018b; Prison Reform Trust, 2017).  Research also indicates that serious assaults have never been as high as they are at present in prisons in England and Wales (Prison Reform Trust, 2018; Ministry of Justice, 2018).  With that in mind, some statistics by the Ministry of Justice (2018a) suggest that it is possible that up to 5 inmates in prisons in England and wales have died due to homicide within the prisons between December 2016-2017. Therefore, this suggests that prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are a large concern in England and Wales, and it is possible that these figures could rise if reforms within the prisons are not implemented and prisons are not maintained as a safe environment as they should be (Woolf, 1991).

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It is important to look at the types of assaults that were committed in order to understand the importance and the risk related to prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  Some of the assaults committed were stabbing, fractures, burns to the skin and in some cases temporary/permanent blindness were caused (Ministry of Justice, 2018b).  Stabbing incidents have more than doubled from 2014 to 2017, this is a clear indication that bullying exists within the prisons whereby the prisoners aim to hurt each other physically (Ministry of Justice, 2018b; Kimmett, 2015).  However, it is worth mentioning that the statistics by the Ministry of Justice (2018) display the types of assaults in relation to all assaults, they do not specify the level of each assault that relate specifically to prisoner-on-prisoner violence. 

Risk Factors contributing to violence

After looking at the figures above, it poses the questions as to why these assaults are occurring and who is committing them.  When considering who is committing the acts of violence, it is important to consider the risk factors that can contribute to this – those who are most likely to commit assaults against each other.  According to Mears et al (2013), risk factors that have previously been used to describe violence in prison are:


  • Mainly young and between the ages of 18-20 (Ministry of Justice, 2016; Rocheleau, 2015)


  • Mainly male (Ministry of Justice, 2016)
  • Females have contributed but not quite at the level of males (Ministry of Justice, 2018)


  • The prisoner is more likely to commit violent acts within prison if they have been convicted of crimes in the past/have spent time in prison (Rocheleau, 2015)

Mears et al (2013) also discuss factors such as educational attainment and this is important as prisons are set up to reform the individual, and research has shown that the quality of education in prisons in England and wales has reduced, therefore educational attainment is not being attended to (Prison Reform Trust, 2018; Ministry of Justice, 2016).  Rocheleau (2015) suggests that involvement within gangs in prison can contribute to violence against other inmates. 


  • Those committing crimes against other inmates are likely to be a member of a gang in prison and some are likely to have been a member of a gang before entering prison (Rocheleau, 2015; Ministry of Justice, 2011)
  • Some prisoners will join these gangs out of fear, others will join for financial reasons or to feel a sense of power over others (Ministry of Justice, 2011).


  • Likelihood of being violent towards another inmate cane be caused by drug rivalry as drug use is very high in prisons in England and Wales – can be smuggled in or sent in via drones (Ministry of Justice, 2016)
  • This can also be linked to gang violence, where the gangs are often in charge of supplying the drugs to other inmates, and this is where violence can arise (Ministry of Justice, 2011)
  • Drug use may have been an issue before entering prison or could possibly be the reason the offender is in prison and therefore a prior issue can continue to cause issues whilst in prison – therefore their individual level risk factors can cause harm whilst in prison (Rocheleau, 2015).


Institutional predictors of prisoner-on-prisoner violence

Some research suggests that the conditions within prisons are what cause inmates to commit assaults on each other (Lahm, 2007).  HMCIP (2018) stated that prison conditions between 2017/18 were and are very poor and could be at fault for the increased level of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.  These prisons are overcrowded for the most part and therefore prisoners are being held in cells that simply are not large enough to hold more than one prisoner, these conditions can be the cause of aggression and violence towards other inmates (Prison Reform Trust, 2018; HMCIP, 2018; Irwin & Cressey, 1962). 

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Overcrowding can also affect whether or not there are staff available to maintain order within the prisons, as in England and Wales, the ratio of staff to prisoners was 1:4.8 in 2013 – this is the most up to date statistic available with regards to this ratio (Prison Reform Trust, 2014).  Therefore, this suggests that there simply are too many prisoners and too little staff to both cater to their needs and to maintain a safe and secure prison environment to avoid assaults by prisoners on other inmates.   

Prison structure can also affect prisoner behaviour towards other inmates, for example, if a prisoner is locked away in confinement for a substantial amount of time in a high security prison, this can cause built up aggression not only towards staff, but towards other inmates as they have been deprived of social interaction (Sykes, 1958).

Programmes such as the Prison Reform Programme were set up in order to engage prisoners in activities and to ensure that prisoners have access to education and to help train them in order to have experience when they leave prison (HMCIP, 2018).  These were set up in relation to the Prison Rules 1999 in order to encourage people to “lead a good and useful life” (HMPSS, 1999:2).  However, due to the fact that these prisons are overcrowded and do not have the correct amount of staff, the prisoners have little access to this and are being deprived of social interactions (HMCIP, 2018). 

Reporting – should it be trusted?

It is important to note that the statistics based on the reporting of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults may not be fully accurate as it is possible that assaults in prison can go unreported due to fear or simply because this goes against ‘inmate code’ (Welford, 1967).  Within this inmate code prisoners are to abide by a set of unofficial rules, whereby they do not tell any authorities if another inmate has committed a violent act against another inmate, this can be through fear or so as they do not appear to be vulnerable (Sykes, 1958).

Also, it could be suggested that the staff do not always report all assaults as they do not want it to appear that they do not have full control over the prison in which they are working in, therefore it is possible that some prisoner-on-prisoner assaults can go unreported due to this. 

Reporting by the media should also not always be trusted, as in most cases they are using the statistics given by the Ministry of Justice to make assumptions about how concerning prisoner-on-prisoner violence is.  Media sites such as The Guardian (2018) use statistics from the Ministry of Justice to discuss the increase in prison violence, however, they do not consider that the figures may not be accurate to the actual amount of assaults that occur.

Current Recommendations

  1. The current policy with regards to prisons are very dated, they consist of The Prison Act 1952 and The Prison Rules 1999 (Ministry of Justice, 2016).  A main issue in this being so dated is that all policy regarding prisons is to be decided by the secretary of state only, and that only recommendations can be made to the secretary of state for them to decide whether it should be implemented or not (Ministry of Justice, 2016; HMSO, 1952).

Recommendation: This suggests that the secretary of state has a large amount of policy and issues to deal with, therefore it is possible that not enough time is available to make all amendments that are needed to improve prison situations and reduce rates of assaults.  Although the Prison Act 1952 states that the secretary of state should be in charge of this area, it would be helpful to recommend that parliament and advisors have an input on these issues, so as the load of policy to assess will be carried out effectively and more time can be spent on this.

  1. Under the Prison Rules 1999, it states that privileges such as being allowed time out of cells should be granted to prisoners based on their behaviour, however this does not always occur and in recent times it has been found that in very few prisons in England and Wales, the prisoners have been granted an appropriate amount of time outside of their cells (HMCIP, 2018; HMPSS, 1999).

Recommendation: This suggests that prisoners should be granted an appropriate amount of time spent outside of their cells in order to gain some social interaction with other inmates, as if they are restricted to the social interaction of just their cell mate this could contribute to assaults.

Also, the Offender Learning and Skills Service could be put to better use by ensuring that all prisoners in England and Wales gain a decent amount of educational experience, therefore distracting them from committing any assaults against other prisoners or staff (Skills Funding Agency, 2014).  This will train them to have belonging in society and possibly to get a job when they are released (Skills Funding Agency, 2014).  

  1. As mentioned, overcrowding is a major issue in prisons in England and Wales, whereby there aren’t nearly enough staff to manage and control the prisons and the prisoners within the institutions (Prison Reform Trust, 2014).   

Recommendation: It could be suggested that funding should be used to train more staff at higher levels to better manage and control prisons that are overcrowded and tackling high levels of violence within.  Therefore, prisoners will not feel as though they are in charge or have the power, as the staff will instead (Rocheleau, 2015).  Also, it could be suggested with regards to staffing issue that staff could be trained further to implement stricter security in order to prevent assaults occurring. 


In conclusion, it is clear from the statistics that prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are a growing issue and are to be a concern to society, and it is possible that they are actually more of a concern than the statistics reveal due to the fact that they may not all be reported (Ministry of Justice, 2018; Sykes, 1958). In order for this issue to improve new structures need to be put in place to ensure the safety of prisoners, to ensure that they are safe from harm of other prisoners and to ensure that they are not causing any harm to others, to maintain the prisons in England and Wales as safe areas for reform, not to create further violence (Woolf, 1991). 


  • HM Prison Service (2004) Violence Reduction: Prison Service Order 2750, London: HM Prison service.
  • HMCIP (2018) HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, London: HMCIP.
  • HMPSS (1999) Prison Rules 1999, London: HMPSS.
  • HMSO (1952) Prison Act 1952, London: HMSO.
  • Irwin, J. & Cressey, D.R. (1962) ‘Thieves, Convicts and the Inmate Culture’, Social Problems, 10(2), pp. 142-155.
  • Kimmett, E. (2005) ‘Bullying, victimization and safer prisons’, The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice, 52(4), pp. 390-400.
  • Mears, D.P., Stewart, E.A., Siennick, S.E. & Simons, R.L. (2013) ‘THE CODE OF THE STREET AND INMATE VIOLENCE: INVESTIGATING THE SALIENCE OF IMPORTED BELIEF SYSTEMS’, Criminology, 51(3), pp. 695-728.
  • Ministry of Justice (2011) Understanding the psychology of gang violence: implications for designing effective violence interventions, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Ministry of Justice (2016) Prison Safety and Reform, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Ministry of Justice (2018a) Safety in custody quarterly: update to December 2017, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Ministry of Justice (2018b) Safety in custody quarterly: update to March 2018, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Prison Reform Trust (1991) The Woolf Report: A Summary of the Main Findings and Recommendations of the Inquiry into Prison Disturbances, London: Prison Reform Trust.
  • Prison Reform Trust (2014) Prison: the facts, London: Prison Reform Trust.
  • Prison Reform Trust (2018) Prison: the facts, London: Prison Reform Trust.
  • Rocheleau, A.M. (2015) ‘Ways of Coping and Involvement in Prison Violence’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 59(4), pp. 359-383.
  • Singleton, N., Farrell, M. & Meltzer, H. (2009) ‘Substance misuse among prisoners in England and Wales’, International Review of Psychiatry , 15(1-2), pp. 150-152.
  • Skills Funding Agency (2014) OLASS funding: rules and guidance, Coventry: Skills Funding Agency.
  • Sykes, G. (1958) The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • The Guardian (2018) Prison violence in England and Wales hits record levels, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/apr/26/prison-violence-in-england-and-wales-hits-record-levels (Accessed: 22nd October 2018).
  • Welford, C. (1967) ‘Factors Associated with Adoption of the Inmate Code: A Study of Normative Socialization’, The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 58(2), pp. 197-203.
  • World Health Organisation (2002) World report on violence and health, Geneva: World Health Organisation.


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