Prisoners can receive compensation if they are injured and the Prison Service is to blame or if their human rights are breached – Iain Overton reports

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The Ministry of Justice has paid out more than £117 million in compensation claims from prisons over the past four financial years, Byline Times can reveal.

The Freedom of Information data is based on how much the Government has spent on damages, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) costs, and adverse costs. The awards are to prisoners, prison staff and others seeking compensation.

The figures show that, in 2018-19, a total of £26,394,027 was paid out in compensation, increasing to £28,857,097 in 2019-20 and peaking at £33,543,106 in 2020-21.

Although the total amount paid out decreased slightly to £28,213,720 in 2021-22, the overall trend of increasing compensation payments appears a cause for concern.

Prisoners can receive compensation if they are injured and the Prison Service is to blame or if their human rights are breached. 

It is unclear what may have caused the surge in compensation payments in 2020-21 compared to the previous year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in the number and severity of incidents leading to claims. Moreover, the conditions in some prisons have been subject to criticism, with concerns over overcrowding and safety

A report last year by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners and psychiatric patients in the UK, highlighting the chronic overcrowding and serious inter-prisoner violence that remains prevalent in male adult prisons. The report noted that the underlying structural causes of overcrowding and violence in prison had not been addressed by successive governments. 

Despite a 63% decrease in the number of crimes committed in England and Wales – from more than 11 million in 1981 to just four million in 2021-22, according to the England and Wales Crime Survey – the number of people in prison has risen dramatically, increasing by 83% from 43,300 to 79,400 over the same period. As it stands, 159 out of every 100,000 people in England and Wales are currently incarcerated.

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Alongside the data, a statement in the House of Commons in January also showed that compensation payments to prisoners have doubled in recent years and are now running at more than £5 million per year.

The annual total of litigation damages for people in custody in England and Wales stood at £2.6 million in 2016/17, but increased steadily over the following three years to peak at £7.6 million in 2019/20. It then dropped off to £6.1 million in 2020/21 and £5.3 million in 2021/22.

Disclosing these figures in the Commons, Prisons, Parole and Probation Minister Damian Hinds said: “We successfully defend two-thirds of compensation cases brought by prisoners and always make sure debts to victims and the courts are paid before any payment is made to the offender.”

In 2021, the Ministry of Justice paid compensation to a prisoner after he was unable to fully practise his religion due to a failure by prison staff to make arrangements for him to attend congregational Friday prayers, known as Jumu’ah.

The prisoner – known only as Mr H – was placed in a vulnerable prisoner unit at a UK prison and the management said that attending the prison chapel for the prayer would not be safe due to other Muslim prisoners attending at the same time. Despite Mr H’s requests for alternative arrangements, the prison failed to provide an adequate explanation.

The complainant’s lawyers Leigh Day, which represented Mr H, warned at the time that prisoners’ rights to manifest their religion should not be ignored or undermined due to administrative cost or convenience.

While it is essential to ensure that victims of crime are compensated fairly, the increasing trend of compensation payments seems to indicate a system under stress. The MoJ has highlighted that they seek to ensure that prisoners or former prisoners pay their victims back first. However, with almost one thousand compensation claims over four years, overwhelmingly from prisoners, and the average cost of each claim being more than £36,000 to the public purse, there is a clear need to address the underlying issues that lead to these incidents.

Campaigners argue that investing in safer and more humane prison conditions, providing support to prisoners, staff, and victims, and addressing the root causes of crime may help reduce the overall number of compensation claims made and save taxpayer money.

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It has already been reported that prison officers are leaving the profession in large numbers due to the overcrowding of inmates in prisons. This is resulting in a lack of staff to manage the prisons, leading to increased levels of violence and safety concerns. 

Peter Dawson, of the Prison Reform Trust, told Byline Times: “Our prison system is failing on every front, as these numbers show. But unusually this is a public service which could be fixed by reducing demand rather than increasing supply. The political love affair with imprisonment as a symbol of toughness lies at the root of the problem, and both main parties are to blame.”

The Government response appears to be to limit the right to seek redress rather than address the root causes. Its Bill of Rights Bill – which aims to replace the Human Rights Act and alter how human rights are protected in the country – aims to limit pay-outs by introducing a permission stage that “places responsibility on the claimant to demonstrate that they have suffered a significant disadvantage before a human rights claim can be heard in court”.

The bill has not yet had its second reading in the Commons and no date is currently scheduled, with committees urging the Government not to proceed with it. Last week, it was reported that the Government had rejected all of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ recommendations.

If it becomes law, the bill would curb pay-outs to prisoners due to the previous bad behaviour which landed them in jail – a measure which, according to the report by the all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights “risks transgressing a fundamental principle underlying human rights”.

However, in relation to prisoner compensation, Hinds said it would place “responsibility on the claimant to demonstrate that they have suffered a significant disadvantage before a human rights claim can be heard in court”. 


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