HMP Elmley - very serious concerns

HMP Elmley needed to stabilise and to recruit more staff as a matter of urgency, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the local prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

At the time of this inspection HMP Elmley held 1,252 men, well above its certified normal accommodation of 985. Like other prisons in the south east of England, Elmley struggled to deal with the pressures created by a large number of staff vacancies. At the heart of the prison’s problems was a very restricted and unpredictable regime. Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day. Inspectors witnessed many examples of prisoners being turned away from education and work because prison officers were not available to supervise them. Almost 200 men were unemployed and routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • the overall number of fights and assaults had increased by 60% over the past year and the number of serious assaults had also increased sharply;
  • over the previous 11 months there had been 11 acts of concerted indiscipline when prisoners had refused to return to their cells. There had been none in the 12 months before that;
  • the number of self-harm incidents had increased and there had been five self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection in 2012;
  • a new learning and skills manager had been recently appointed after the post had been vacant for a year and there were signs of improvement, but provision remained very poor and was judged by Ofsted as inadequate in every area;
  • the offender management unit was overwhelmed, with half the posts remaining vacant and staff frequently deployed to other duties;
  • prison offender supervisors received no training or meaningful supervision appropriate to their role and there was a backlog of 271 risk assessments;
  • none of the cases reviewed by probation inspectors showed that meaningful work had been done to address the offending behaviour of the prisoner concerned;
  • visiting times were disrupted by staff shortages and there was little recognition of the difficulties visitors faced due to the prison’s isolated location;
  • although inspectors saw some good interactions between staff and prisoners, contact was too limited;
  • physical conditions required improvement and this was exacerbated by the length of time prisoners spent in their cells;
  • forty per cent of prisoners said it was easy to get drugs, the Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT) programme was flawed and there were indications that the use of new psychoactive substances such as ‘Spice’, was common;
  • the management of medicines was very poor, creating risks of prisoners receiving the wrong dose at the wrong time and of the trading or theft of prescribed medicines; and
  • almost 200 prisoners were held three to a cell designed for two.

However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • security was reasonable;
  • prisoners’ practical resettlement needs were addressed efficiently on arrival and again 10 weeks before discharge;
  • practical help with health, substance abuse and money issues after release was good;
  • prisoners from black and minority ethnic groups reported more positively than their white counterparts and those with an identified disability were well cared for;
  • faith provision was good and the chaplaincy played an active role; and
  • most aspects of health care were good and inspectors saw prisoners with serious mental health problems treated with kindness, patience and skill by hard-pressed staff.

Nick Hardwick said:

“These are very concerning findings and the first priority should be to stabilise the prison. While the inspection was taking place, plans were being made to introduce a much more restricted regime the following week until temporary staff could be recruited. This would further restrict the amount of purposeful activity and resettlement support available. However, by concentrating officers on the wings, the intention was to ensure prisoners had regular, predictable and safe association and time for domestic duties. This was a necessary step. Good communication is required, and a full regime needs to be reintroduced as soon as it is practical and safe to do so. However, the plan relies heavily on the arrival of temporary staff to relieve the pressure. If that does not occur, the population at Elmley should be reduced to a level that can be managed safely and effectively by the staff available.”

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

“When the Inspectorate visited Elmley in June the prison was operating with a high level of staff vacancies, but as the Chief Inspector acknowledges plans were already in hand to provide support through additional staff from other prisons. 23 officers were deployed to Elmley in the week following the inspection and these additional staff have enabled the Governor to provide a fuller and more consistent regime than was available at the time of the inspection.

“Permanent recruitment is underway and Elmley will continue to receive support from other prisons until vacancies are filled to ensure that the prison can continue to operate properly and safely at all times.”

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 June.
  4. HMP Elmley is a local prison serving courts in Kent and Sussex. It holds remand and convicted male adults and young adults.
  5. Please contact Jane Parsons at HMI Prisons on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information or to request an interview.