HMP Exeter – a prison in decline, due in part to staff shortages

There were not enough staff at HMP Exeter and safety had declined, as had work to rehabilitate prisoners, said Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Current staff should, however, be praised for their efforts, he added. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the local prison in Devon.

HMP Exeter held 490 adults and young adult prisoners at the time of its inspection. It was previously inspected in 2013. This more recent inspection found a clear decline in safety, in work to reduce reoffending and manage offenders through their sentence, and in the provision of health care. The biggest challenge facing the prison was that at the time of the inspection there were insufficient staff to run a predictable daily regime. The situation was apparently exacerbated by the long recruitment process for new staff. Inspectors considered whether the management team could have done more to mitigate the impact of staff shortages, and although there were some issues that could be addressed, it was difficult to see how outcomes could have been significantly better given the staffing shortfalls.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • the number of violent incidents was far higher than at other local prisons and than at the time of the previous inspection;
  • too many prisoners felt unsafe;
  • there had been 10 self-inflicted deaths since the previous inspection and there was another suspected self-inflicted death shortly after the inspection;
  • there were high levels of self-harm and serious concerns about some aspects of health care provision;
  • prisoners spent too much time locked in their cells and too few managed to take part in work, training or education, as the daily routine was often curtailed; and
  • there were real weaknesses in offender management, and work to help prisoners resettle back into the community, despite some good aspects, was undermined by staff changes and staff shortages.

However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • the management team were leading staff to deliver a service under challenging circumstances;
  • relationships between staff and prisoners were good;
  • the substance misuse service was very good and services for the many prisoners with mental health problems were good;
  • the management of learning and skills was good and the prison provided enough activity places for the population, but they were not fully used and too many sessions were cancelled; and
  • plans to help prisoners resettle back into the community were generally detailed, and some provision was good.

Peter Clarke said:

“If the shortage of staff provided the backdrop to difficulties at HMP Exeter, the foreground was filled by the challenges of drugs, violence and prisoners suffering from mental health issues. These were, of course, intertwined, and each in their own way was exacerbated by the impact of staff shortages.

“Despite all these difficulties, prisoners told us that the staff treated them with respect and it was clear that the relationship between prisoners and staff was fundamentally sound. It was to the enormous credit of senior managers and staff alike that they were persisting in their determination to do what they could to provide a decent environment for the men in their care.

“However, there was a real and troubling concern that the situation at HMP Exeter was fragile. Outcomes for prisoners had declined markedly since the previous inspection. Unless the regime could be improved, violence reduced, and the prevalence of drugs and other contraband addressed, further declines would be almost inevitable.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, said:

“We recognise that the prison needs more staff to deal with the problem of drugs, to improve safety and to provide more purposeful activity for prisoners. The Government have provided additional funding to increase staffing levels – and good progress is already being made to recruit new officers.

“The Chief Inspector has highlighted the dedication of managers and staff at HMP Exeter who have been working hard to provide a decent regime despite considerable operational pressures. I’m confident that together with these extra resources the Governor will be able to fully address the recommendations in this report and significantly improve the performance of the prison.”

– ENDS –

Notes to editors:

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 1 February, can be found here.
  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. HMP Exeter is a male category B local and resettlement prison holding prisoners, including young adults, from the courts of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.
  4. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 15-26 August 2016.
  5.  Please contact Jane Parsons at HM Inspectorate of Prisons 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 or Barbara Buchanan on 020 3681 2772 if you would like more information.