Chief Inspector’s blog: digging deeper

Returning to full inspections

During the pandemic, we adapted our inspection methodology to allow us to make safer ‘scrutiny visits’ to prisons. These were necessarily shorter than our usual inspections and covered fewer expectations. We were, therefore, pleased to announce our return to full, scored inspections from 10 May. For the time being, in order to assess COVID-19 risk, we are giving three days’ notice before we arrive. When it is safer, we will go back to arriving unannounced.

Over the last few months, we filled our scrutiny visit schedule with what we considered lower risk prisons, hence the focus on open prisons in my last blog. This was so we could conduct full inspections on riskier, more complex establishments.

Governors at the first few prisons we visited for full inspections have felt understandably unlucky to be inspected while so many restrictions are still in place. As a former headteacher, I know only too well what it is like to get the dreaded phone call. Despite this, we have seen some really good practice, with prisons showing how they can make the best of the limited regime they are allowed to offer and finding ways to get prisoners out of their cells and involved in purposeful activity for as much time as possible.

We have been particularly struck by how the limitations on visits have affected prisoners’ morale. A woman at HMP Send told me she was worried she was losing her connection with her child, and we know that some prisoners have preferred not to see family at all, rather than to meet without being able to have any physical contact.

It is hard to imagine how to explain to a two-year-old that they are not allowed to hug their mother or father. The recent decision to allow hugging for the under-elevens will be welcomed by prisoners, but with many relationships, it will take a long time to repair the lost ground.


The experience of neurodivergent people

Six months ago we were commissioned by the Lord Chancellor, with our colleagues from HM Inspectorate of Probation, to gather evidence on the experiences of neurodivergent people in the criminal justice system (CJS), and we were delighted that HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services joined us in the review.

Neurodivergence covers a range of conditions that includes learning difficulties and disabilities, common conditions such as ADHD, autism, developmental language disorders and tic disorders, and cognitive impairments due to acquired brain injury.

We put out a general call for evidence, held round table events with experts in this sector and listened to those with neurodivergent needs who had experience of the CJS. We found screening was patchy and many were not assessed at all, either at point of entry or later on. There were some pockets of good practice where programmes were in place to meet neurodivergent needs, but we also found that most staff had had little or no training in how to provide support.

We recommended that there should be universal screening of those who enter the CJS, systematic collection of screening data, awareness raising and training for staff, adjustments to meet the needs of those with neurodivergent conditions, and a more coordinated approach between criminal justice agencies and other organisations. More effective practice and better collection of data can help people in this often-troubled group to avoid or limit contact with the justice system.

We will publish this review on our website soon, so please look out for it.


Looking into leadership

We have now begun piloting our new leadership expectations that we have developed over the last six months. We know that leadership is one of the most important factors in improving prisons, so it is right that we focus in on this critical area.

At the core of the work is the prison’s own self-assessment; we have developed a form to help governors to demonstrate how they are achieving against our four healthy prison tests, their main priorities, including how they will monitor and assess progress, and the headway they have made with our previous recommendations.

We hope this form will help prison leaders in their planning and will be regularly updated, rather than only filled in for an inspection. We believe that this work will support all leaders, whether they are prison governors, prison group directors or HMPPS itself, to support the growth of good leadership at every level of the prison service.

We will be launching the new expectations formally in July and you will be able to find information about them on the Expectations pages of our website. We expect to publish the first reports featuring the new section on leadership this autumn.


Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons