There’s rightly mounting anger and concern about declining safety in prisons with latest statistics showing increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and serious assaults. Too often neglected is a further dimension of safety - that which relates to fires.
Data released separately about casualties resulting from fires shows that there was one “fatality” and 105 “non-fatal casualties” in custodial establishments in England in the last financial year. The fatality was the sixth in a prison fire since 2011-12.
The numbers of non-fatal casualties have shown a welcome fall since 2015-16 but there is no reason for complacency. As we have known since the summer, Fire and Rescue Services attended 1,012 incidents in English prisons last year up 20% on 2021/22. 21 incidents were also recorded in what are referred to as Young Offender Units, up from 11 the year before. Many more fires are started without the need for the Fire Service to attend.The reduction in casualties may reflect greater attention being given to addressing fire risks by the prison service. The 2021 Prison Strategy White paper promised to “Build on our work to reduce the harm caused by prisoners starting fires, with the aim of equipping all prison cells with automatic fire alarm systems”. A revised Prison Service Instruction on Fire Safety was introduced in March 2022.
Last year however, the Prison service admitted that 35,000 prison places did not meet fire safety standards. They were aiming to bring 7,000 of these up to standard by March 2023. But according to their 2021 correspondence with the Coroner following the last fire related death in prison (in 2019) the overall improvement programme was not forecast to be finished until 2026-2028. There has been no update on progress that I have seen.
There is clearly a lot of work going on. Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk told MPs in July this year that the reason for about 1,500 cells being out of action was “principally about dealing with our statutory fire obligations.” It is important that the commitment to meet those obligations is not watered down during a period of intense demand for prison places.
The body that scrutinises what the Prison service is doing is the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate (CPFSI). It is a Home Office body responsible for ensuring compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in 16,000 government buildings. According to its last Annual Report it has just 12 staff. It’s little wonder that they have yet to produce an Annual Report for 2021-22 let alone 2022-23.
The CPFSI has a Memorandum of Understanding with HM Inspectorate of Prisons which reads as if its main purpose is to ensure the organisations keep out of each other’s way.
But maybe now is the time for Charlie Taylor to take over responsibility for assessing fire safety as part of his remit as Chief Inspector of Prisons; and for the MoJ to publish data on fire safety to broaden the way the performance of prisons can be assessed. It's too important to leave out of the picture.