'I thought I was going to die': The epidemic of violence against prison officers

Violence against prison officers has soared since the pandemic with 23 attacks a day recorded last year across England and Wales. A new report exclusively seen by Sky News by the Community trade union warns that without "major, generational reform…the epidemic of violence will only get worse".

They're calling for all political parties to commit to a national strategy to reduce attacks on staff ahead of the next general election.

Political correspondent Amanda Akass has been speaking to one prison officer who suffered catastrophic injuries during an attack at work.

When Martin Geddes was ambushed by an inmate who stole his baton and beat him around the head - he thought he was going to die.

"He sucker punched me, grabbed me, pulled me into the cell and got hold of my baton. And that's the last thing I remember until I came round with the cell full of officers and my friend thought my throat had been cut, because there was that much blood.

"I suffered a ten inch laceration to the back of my head requiring ten staples, and multiple other baton injuries to my head and body." His attacker was convicted and sentenced to an indefinite hospital order.

Three years on, Martin still suffers from searing headaches- and says it's had a catastrophic impact on his mental health.
"I was having flashbacks - for at least 12 months, before I had therapy.

"The flashbacks were 40 or 50 a day of the last image I remember, the inmate holding my baton fully extended above my head. I had suicidal thoughts. If it hadn't been for my partner Alison I would have taken my own life. I just couldn't cope.

"It was a job I loved doing but I would never go back. I've had to resign. I just don't feel safe on the landing anymore."

The number of prison officers facing attacks at work - across both public and private prisons - is rising rapidly. At the current rate it's soon set to overtake the record numbers from just before the pandemic in 2018-19.

The latest government figures released in January show there were 8,516 assaults on prison officers in England and Wales over the 12 months to September 2023, an increase of 16% on the previous year - which works out at 23 attacks a day. Of those attacks 765 were categorised as serious. Attacks in women's prisons meanwhile are at their highest ever level, with 785 during that same period.

The Community trade union, which represents thousands of staff at private prisons, has today published a report, exclusively seen by Sky News, which claims that without "major, generational reform of the sector, chronic overcrowding and the epidemic of violence against prison staff will only get worse".

Co-author Kate Dearden, Community's head of research, policy and politics, is calling for all political parties to commit to the development of a national plan to reduce assaults on staff in their manifestos ahead of the next general election.

She wants to see higher minimum staffing levels, swifter, stronger punishments for offenders, greater mental health support for those affected, and better pay to improve staffing levels. The union is also calling for measures to reduce overcrowding, such as a greater use of community sentences and electronic tagging.

She said: "It's not right that people should have to risk their lives just going to work, with their families worried about if they're going to come home.

"Action has to be taken to prevent and stamp out these assaults. It's clear that we need a complete overhaul of our justice system to make sure that happens."

In November, the prison population in England and Wales was 87,930, against an operational capacity of 88,924. More than 60% of prisons are officially overcrowded and holding more inmates than they are certified to.

While the government is committed to provide 20,000 new places by the mid 2020s, minister Edward Argar informed the Justice Select Committee this week that only 8,500 are set to be ready by May 2025. He blamed the delays on problems securing planning permission for new prisons.

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In their Prisons Performance Tracker for 2023, the Institute for Government concluded that while the number of prison officers had grown by 1.3% over the past year, total staff numbers were still 10% lower than in 2010, and retention is "poor".

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "The overall rate of assaults on our hardworking prison staff is 10% lower than prior to the pandemic but violence is never tolerated which is why we increased the maximum penalty for assaulting prison officers.

"We have also invested £100m in tough security measures including X-ray body scanners to clamp down on the contraband that fuels violence behind bars."