HMP Dartmoor – some improvements, some concerns, much uncertainty

HMP Dartmoor could continue to improve but only if staff and managers have much greater certainty about its future, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection of the training jail in Devon.

HMP Dartmoor was established in 1809. Its isolated location and the age and dilapidated state of some of its buildings make it a very challenging establishment to run. A few months before its inspection, ministers announced that negotiations would take place with the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the prison, about its closure. However, there is a notice period of 10 years and it is possible that the prison will continue to operate for years to come.

Despite the challenges of its environment and location, the prison could offer improved and reasonable prisoner outcomes for those it held. There had been improvements in some areas since its last inspection and there were some credible plans in place to make more. There were significant weaknesses but most of these were in the prison’s direct control. However, some certainty about the timeframe is needed for staff to know where they stand, facilitate sensible decisions about the capital investment required and provide a basis for effective planning to meet the needs of the prison population.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • reception processes were efficient and welcoming;
  • care for men at risk of suicide or self-harm was reasonable;
  • the environment of the segregation unit had improved and relationships between staff and prisoners were good, although very little was done to address the behaviour of those held there;
  • good efforts had been made to improve the external environment;
  • good and improved relationships between staff and prisoners mitigated the worst effects of the poor physical conditions;
  • Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust, the new health care provider, had improved health services;
  • most men enjoyed good time out of their cells; and
  • the education, training and work environment was impressive and the quality of what was provided was good.

However, inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • too many prisoners said they felt unsafe, levels of victimisation were high and sloppy processes meant that the prison was not adequately sighted on the true levels of violence;
  • safety was compromised by the too ready availability of prohibited drugs which included synthetic cannabinoids such as ‘Spice’, tradable prescribed drugs, injected drugs and illicitly brewed alcohol, or ‘hooch’;
  • the new incentives and earned privileges scheme had been poorly implemented;
  • some cells were very small, some roofs leaked badly and some cells were damp;
  • too many men arrived without an up-to-date risk assessment or sentence plan, which compromised the progress they could make at Dartmoor;
  • following the closure of other prisons in the region, Dartmoor held a large population of sex offenders, a significant proportion of whom were judged to be in denial of their offence and there was no provision for them; and
  • although practical resettlement support was generally effective, visits arrangements were inadequate and did not take sufficient account of the isolated location of the prison.

Nick Hardwick said:

“There is a risk that staff and managers at HMP Dartmoor become paralysed by the things over which they have little control – the uncertainties over the prison’s future, the state of the buildings, the prison’s location and the make-up of the population it holds – and that this becomes an excuse for not addressing the things they can change. The improvements that have been made show what can be done by determined leadership. The prison and regional managers should now focus on reducing levels of violence, building on the improvements made to education, training and work, tackling the backlog of risk assessments and ensuring an effective strategy is in place to deal with the sex offender population.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), said:

“I am pleased that the Chief Inspector has acknowledged the improvements made at Dartmoor.

“The decision to give notice on the lease is part of our wider strategy to modernise the prison estate but Dartmoor will continue to operate as a prison for a number of years yet, and we are therefore committed to support it developing the regime.
“The Governor will use the recommendations in the report to achieve further improvement at Dartmoor over the next few years.”

Notes to editors

  1. Read the report
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 2-13 December 2013.
  4. HMP Dartmoor is a category C training prison for male adults.
  5. Please contact Jane Parsons in HMI Prisons Press Office on 202 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information or to request an interview with Nick Hardwick.