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Criminal justiceGangsOffender management and rehabilitation

Ten years on: violence reduction in prisons

Contemplative Man

Ten years on from the publication of Catch22’s acclaimed research on the impact of gangs and violence in prisons, Miranda Shanks explores what we know about violence in prison and what needs to happen in the next ten years.

2024 marks ten years since Catch22 published its highly acclaimed research, focusing on the impact of gangs and violence in prisons. The research was conducted by the Dawes Research Unit, a specialist unit within Catch22 that addressed the harms caused by gangs and youth violence, bringing together research, policy and practice.

In 2014, the Dawes research into the nature of gangs in prison found that, although conflict within custody manifests in many ways, gang-involved individuals were the perpetrators of a disproportionate number of violent incidents. The report concluded that safely and sensitively managing gangs, supporting gang-affiliated individuals, and encouraging gang exit within custody were essential steps to reducing violence in prison.

Violence in custody, including assaults either between prisoners or against staff, is a difficult yet important issue to navigate; we know that a violence-free prison environment is conducive to better engagement and rehabilitation, as well as staff satisfaction and retention. In the ten years that followed the Dawes publication, this research has underpinned Catch22’s Custodial Gang & Violence Reduction delivery models, supporting us to deliver Gang and Violence Reduction services across nine prisons in the UK.

So, a decade later, what do we know about violence and conflict in prison, and what needs to happen in the next ten years?

Violence in prisons is increasing

The most recently published National Statistics showed that assault incidents are increasing. In 2010, there were 14,356 assault incidents (or 169 incidents per 1,000 prisoners). In the 12 months to June 2022, the annual number of assault incidents had grown to 20,551 (or 260 incidents per 1,000 prisoners). The number of gang-affiliated individuals, both in custody and in the community, is also acknowledged to have risen in the last decade.

These figures certainly reflect what we have seen across our services “on the ground”. Catch22’s frontline practitioners have seen more instances of feuds and debts, which are present in the community, spilling over into custody and driving violence, for example those associated with county lines. Ten years ago, violence in prisons was mainly contained to the major cities, but now higher cost-of-living and rising deprivation is driving gang-related crime in other areas and into prisons less-familiar with the issue.

The prison capacity crisis

Two thirds of prisons in the UK are officially overcrowded, and the prison population is on track to pass 90,000 this year: a number that the prison infrastructure is not equipped to deal with. Prison overcrowding poses a dual impact on conflict. Firstly, the physical implications of squeezing many more individuals into a limited space can drive claustrophobia, dissatisfaction and dispute. Secondly, overcrowding puts pressure on already-limited resources, such as prison staff, thereby compromising their capacity to deliver de-escalation regimes.


Despite a reduction in violent incidents during lockdowns themselves, the negative legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic can still be felt within prisons. The extreme isolation caused by the COVID-19 restrictions, and lacking provision of purposeful activity, created a melting pot of frustration once the restrictions were lifted. This fuelled anger amongst prisoners and led to increased numbers of incidents. Court backlogs, and the resulting long-waits for trial dates, are also fuelling frustration amongst those in custody. This is particularly prevalent in the remand cohort, who face specific challenges. Due to the nature of their remand status, they are not entitled to receive the structured support and interventions that can help reduce the risk of committing violence in custody.

A positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has been the increased access to technology (such as video call functions) being implemented in prisons. This has undoubtedly helped prisoners stay connected to their networks in the community, which we know can be a positive factor in reducing violence.

How can we reduce violence?

Tailored, evidence-based interventions

Targeted interventions that help change attitudes and behaviours are essential in developing the perspective, empathy, and consequential thinking skills that prevent violence. For example, Catch22’s Rehabilitation Offering Another Direction (R.O.A.D) programme is an intervention supported by the findings of the Dawes research. It works with the most active prisoners who engage in violence or disruption, and empowers participants to make positive, pro-social changes that focus on alternatives to violence. Despite being a voluntary programme, since 2019 across our delivery at we have had a 94% completion rate of the R.O.A.D programme.

Information sharing

It is vitally important in a custodial setting that agencies collaborate in their violence reduction regimes. Catch22 ensures that efficient and appropriate information sharing is at the core of our delivery by attending weekly security meetings and engaging with Safer Custody (the team responsible for managing the risk of harm), whilst also maintaining trusted and supportive relationships with service users. For example, our “gang database” captures key data about gang activity from both the community and custody, which we then use to facilitate information sharing across key agencies (including the prison and the police) which would otherwise be disparate. This helps to embed a holistic and multi-agency approach to reducing violence.

The benefit of the Third Sector

Through mediation, instilling pro-social attitudes, and development of consequential thinking, third sector organisations like Catch22 can support establish a safe regime whilst also working closely with the prison to highlight where there is heightened risk or conflict. The unique benefit of a third-sector rehabilitative partner is that practitioners are not part of the operational prison staff. We’ve seen first-hand that this provides significant advantage in building trusting relationships with service users by helping minimise any kind of “us” and “them” perceptions that participants often have. It certainly allows for more open and meaningful conversations about drivers of violence and conflict. Critically, it also means we can provide expertise and insight that might not otherwise be at the establishment’s disposal. For example, our R.O.A.D. programme is delivered by experts who recognise and understand the context, geography, and pressures of community tensions and rivalries, and how this could translate into custodial violence.

Ten years on from the Dawes research, we can see that violence and conflict in custody is still a pressing issue: one which has arguably been exacerbated and complicated by external factors like the prison capacity crisis. That being said, it’s an issue that the sector is clearly not without the expertise nor determination to tackle.

Find out more:
Catch22 Gangs in Prison Booklet