Violence reduction in prison

A summary of evidence about what works and doesn’t work, to help reduce violence in prison.

Reducing prison violence is a priority for HM Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). There is no single cause of prison violence. It is too simplistic to say prison violence is caused by drugs or bullying or debt, or imported vulnerabilities or poor relationships with staff. Instead, prison violence is caused by multiple of related factors involving:

  • individuals who have a tendency to violence
  • unkept environments that leave people feeling uncared for
  • cultural norms that accept violence as a solution to difficulties or a way of establishing respect
  • a lack of activity so people feel bored and frustrated, and turn to illicit drugs to help pass the time
  • interactions with staff where prisoners feel neither treated kindly nor have decisions explained

Violence between prisoners is often related to the illicit economy. It is also to related to poor conflict resolution skills. Minor conflicts escalate quickly to violence as the accepted and expected way of establishing respect. Because there are multiple causes of violence, there is no single solution. Evidence suggests the most effective way forward is to improve prison culture and staff-prisoner relationships. We know that both staff and prisoner want prisons to be safer places.

What we know works to help reduce violence in prison

Improving the physical environment of prisons, setting and adhering to standards:

Expanding prisoner activities and intervention programmes

  • cognitive skills training, anger management, mindfulness
  • increasing the opportunities for activity so that people feel less bored and frustrated - activity should be meaningful, something prisoners see a rationale for and could benefit from like workshops and education

Staff training initiatives

  • staff training like the Five Minute Intervention or Minimising Physical Restraint - these train staff in skills to de-escalate conflict and help people find other ways of expressing their concerns
  • provide conflict resolution training to staff and prisoners
  • use of prison operational tools like the Violence Diagnostic Tool and Promoting Risk Intervention by Situational Management (PRISM) assessment - this can help understand incident hot spots in a prison and target efforts on these time and places

Strengthening administrative and procedural justice

Procedural Justice relates to how well organised the prison administration is. Procedural justice is the extent to which prisoners experience prison processes as fair:

  • provide more reward for non-violent behaviour
  • efforts to improve procedural justice, so that everyone in the prison feels treated more fairly
  • staff and prisoners working together to agree on ways to reduce violence

What we know doesn’t work

Increasing punishment will not decrease violence. Punishment creates further grievance. This heightens the divisive sense of ’them and us’ that makes violence feel justified.

Introducing new tools such as body worn cameras do not, of themselves, reduce violence. They can make violence incidents easier to manage or resolve but they can also have counterproductive effects if not used wisely.

Understanding prison violence: a rapid evidence assessment (MoJ 2018)

Further reading

Prison Service Journal: 221 special edition on reducing prison violence (Sep 2015)

Learning from PPO investigations: Violence reduction, bullying and safety (2011)

PPO Thematic Review – Homicides in Prisons 2013

Analytical Summary of experiences of prison officers delivering Five Minute Interventions at HMP/YOI Portland (2015)

Tell us what you think of the Prison and probation evidence resource so we can improve it.

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 17 June 2019