HMI Prisons launches Scrutiny Visits

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) has developed a new and enhanced methodology for inspecting prisons and other places of detention as they seek to move away from the severe restrictions that have been in place since the early stages of the COVID-19 emergency.

Scrutiny Visits (SVs) have now replaced the Short Scrutiny Visits (SSVs), which we used in the early months of the emergency. SVs are short inspections of individual establishments. They will be more thorough and probing than SSVs and will reintroduce surveys of prisoners and detainees.

The development of the SV model reflects sustained work by HMI Prisons since March to find ways of carrying out its statutory duty to ensure independent inspection of prisons and other places of detention, to report on conditions and treatment and to promote positive outcomes both for those detained and the wider public.

Since April we have visited 35 men’s and women’s adult prisons, young offender institutions and immigration removal centres using our SSV approach, publishing a total of 12 reports.

However, the SSV methodology was designed to scrutinise a prison system that was navigating its way through the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, when extreme restrictions – including the suspension of visits – were implemented to prevent the spread of the virus. The wider community response to COVID-19 has evolved and the prison service has now entered a stage in which it is looking to move away from the early, severe restrictions.

HMI Prisons has, accordingly, developed the SV model, which is designed to gather more in-depth evidence and report on treatment and conditions at prisons and places of detention as they embark on a journey back towards more normal regimes.

SVs are not full inspections, with the significant demands they place on governing teams. But they will involve more inspectors visiting establishments for longer (while still following public health guidance on doing so safely). We will publish reports on individual establishments, whereas SSVs were clustered in reports about groups of similar prisons.

SVs will also reintroduce prisoner and detainee surveys, a vital element of all our inspections which was not possible in the SSV model. The results of surveys, along with more detailed evidence gathered by inspectors, will enable us to assess the impact of regime restrictions on those in detention – including the impact on mental and physical health for those locked in their cells for most of the day over many months.

HMI Prisons, as it has throughout this emergency, acknowledges the early success of HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) in suppressing transmission of the COVID-19, and understands the importance of a continued focus on the risk posed by the virus.

However, our SV reports will enable us to assess how prisons and other establishments are balancing the risks from the virus against the risks to individual health and welfare from sustained and severe regime restrictions.

In our SV reports, we anticipate being able to comment on the pace of an establishment’s movement to more normal regimes and the proportionality of continued restrictions. As in our SSVs, the SV reports will clearly identify any notable positive practice we see.

Read more about Scrutiny Visits.


Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

30 July 2020