A smoking ban has been identified as a factor behind a sharp rise in violence at one of Britain’s oldest jails, according to an inspection report.
Senior staff at HMP Leicester also attributed a spike in assaults to an influx of younger inmates and the availability of drugs formerly known as legal highs.
Inspectors said the number of recorded violent incidents at the establishment was higher than at other local prisons, and substantially higher than when it was last assessed in 2015.
In the six months prior to the latest visit, there had been 56 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, 28 fights, and 73 assaults on staff.
Violence stabilised or fell during 2016 but then rose “dramatically” last summer, with another surge recorded in November, HM Inspectorate of Prisons said.
The watchdog’s report noted: “Managers attributed this rise to a combination of the smoking ban, an influx of younger prisoners from HMP Glen Parva and the influence of new psychoactive drugs.”
A ban on smoking in jails has been phased in since the beginning of 2016 and 102 establishments in England and Wales are now smoke-free.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “We’re committed to a smoke-free estate and all closed prisons are now following this policy, reducing the risk of second-hand smoke to staff and prisoners.
“This large-scale project has been carefully managed and no incidents in the last year where national resources were deployed were caused by the smoking ban.”
New psychoactive substances (NPS), which were known as legal highs until the introduction of a blanket ban in 2016, have been identified as a key driver behind the record levels of violence in prisons.
Referring to the drugs, the report on Leicester said: “These generally refer to synthetic cannabinoids, a growing number of man-made mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material or paper so they can be smoked or sold as liquids to be vaporised and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices.”
While there had been improvements in control and supervision of inmates, there were some “clear failings” in perimeter and procedural security, the inspectorate found.
Internal gates were often left unlocked, and plans to cover an exercise yard close to the prison wall to prevent “throw-overs” had been outstanding for around 18 months.
HMP Leicester, a small men’s prison which first opened in 1828, held 308 inmates at the time of the latest inspection in January.
Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, said that while the jail was “still not safe enough”, there had been “significant improvements” across many areas.
He said the prison had become more respectful and the wings were much calmer.
The report praised the “excellent” range of extra-curricular activities put on at the jail, including a Dragons’ Den-style event.
Michael Spurr, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said: “Significant work has been done to improve safety and conditions at HMP Leicester and I’m pleased that the progress made has been highlighted in this report.”