Prison staff ‘on the brink’ take equivalent of 770 years mental health sick days

Prison and probation staff took the equivalent of more than 770 years of mental health sick leave last year, amid a crisis within the criminal justice estate, data has revealed.

In the year to March 2024, some 282,457 working days were lost to mental ill health in HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

This is equivalent to 774 years according analysis by the Labour Party, which also warned the number of sick days among prison and probation workers has increased by 148% since 2018, the earliest year recorded in the current figures.

The revelations “are damning and point to a workforce on the brink”, Shabana Mahmood the shadow justice secretary said.

More than 40% of all the sick days logged are now a result of mental ill health, according to the latest prison and probation workforce data.

While the overall number of sick days has decreased from approximately 753,000 in the year to March 2023 to 712,000 over the last year, the number of mental ill health sick days has grown consistently year on year.

The total stood at 113,820 in 2018, had more than doubled by 2022 to 228,276, and now stands at a record high.

While HMPPS says the average number of sick days across its estate is 11, Labour pointed to sickness rates within Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) as being particularly higher than average.

Staff at YOI Werrington took an average of 18 days of sick leave last year, while staff at YOI Feltham took 17.6 days on average.

Other prisons with particularly unwell staff were HMP Liverpool, where staff took 19 days off on average, HMP Wandsworth with 16.6 days on average, and HMP Wymott, 16.1 days on average.

Prison violence has been on the rise in recent years, with assaults on staff increasing across the near-full estate.

A crack prison riot squad, the National Tactical Response Group, has meanwhile seen more frequent deployment in 2023 than the previous year.

And the chief inspector of prisons, Charlie Taylor, has warned dangerous criminals have been freed from jail early as part of the Government’s early release scheme.

HMP and YOI – Stirling
Questions have been raised about the mental health support available to prison and probation staff (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The prison officers’ union has now warned it could take the Government to court if the overcrowding crisis in jails gets worse.

The POA fears prisons, which are near capacity, could be full by June and said it may launch a legal challenge under health and safety laws if safe capacity levels are breached because guards have no “right to strike” in England and Wales.

Shadow justice secretary Ms Mahmood said Labour would “get a grip of the prison and probation service”, and told the PA news agency: “These revelations are damning and point to a workforce on the brink. Our hard-working prison and probation staff have been driven into the ground by 14 years of Conservative mismanagement.”

She claimed prisons had become “drug-addled, rat-infested colleges of crime which march to a drumbeat of violence and misery” under the Conservatives.

The Labour frontbencher added: “Just days ago Rishi Sunak proclaimed himself as the man to keep Britain safe, but he can’t keep the public secure if prisoners are being let out early on his watch and a truly demoralised workforce is being left to pick up the pieces of Conservative chaos.

“It’s no wonder that this is taking a toll on the mental health of staff, but the public are the real losers here. Failing prisons lead to more re-offending and crime.”

The Ministry of Justice says the prisons and probation service offers mental health support if needed to all staff, and provides fast-track referrals for trauma cases and to address mental ill-health referrals.

HMPPS also provides a “mental health allies” system, where staff can volunteer to provide a listening ear to colleagues in need of help.

In addition, new staff are supported by the rollout of a mentorship programme across the estate.