Research forms an important element of our inspection evidence. We gather and analyse quantitative and qualitative data about prisons and other places of detention. These findings are triangulated with other forms of evidence (inspectors’ observations and discussion with staff and detainees) to come to judgements about establishments.

In particular, we conduct a detainee survey as part of every inspection. We analyse this and provide inspectors with:

  • comparisons with previous inspections and surveys conducted at similar establishments
  • breakdowns of the data by different protected characteristics
  • thematic analysis of detainees’ written comments.

We develop additional research activities for thematic inspections. These may include:

  • literature reviews
  • semi-structured interviews with detainees and staff
  • focus groups
  • analysis of case files or other establishment data
  • or secondary analysis of survey data.

We also analyse recommendations, notable positive practice and healthy prison area assessments to provide management information and consultation responses, and for publication in the Chief Inspector’s annual report.

The Research, Development and Thematic (RDT) team at HMI Prisons comprises 12 researchers. Nearly all belong to the Government Social Research Service, a professional body for social researchers in government.

HMI Prisons also employs undergraduate students to work as research trainees during their placement year. Find out more about our current research trainees.

HMI Prisons data: UK Data Service Catalogue

We have worked with Royal Holloway, using a grant they were awarded from the Economic and Social Research Council, to make this 20 years’ worth of anonymised prisoner survey data available to other researchers.

What does the survey data cover?

Survey questions cover all aspects of who people are and their experiences of prison. For example, as well as basic demographic information, it also includes whether they had experience of the care system, whether they have a mental health concern, or a drug or alcohol problem. One caveat is that, while every effort has been made to ensure accuracy that has not always been possible. Before 2010 the questions that we asked regularly changed, because of this there may be some missing data for some prisons. This is much less of an issue the more recent the data sets.

How can I access the data?

You can access the data through the UK Data Service. Users can also apply for a more detailed Special Licence version of these data via the UKDS website.

To share observations or ask questions, please contact us at