Prison reform impossible until jails become safer, warns Chief Inspector

Prison reform will not succeed unless the violence and prevalence of drugs in jail are addressed and prisoners are unlocked for more of the working day, said Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published his second annual report, for 2016-17.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data showed that:

  • in the 12 months to December 2016, there were more than 26,000 assaults, an increase of 27%;
  • during the same period, assaults on staff rose by 38% to 6,844 incidents;
  • of these assaults on staff, 789 were serious, an increase of 26%; and
  • the number of self-inflicted deaths has more than doubled since 2013 and in the 12 months to March 2017, 113 prisoners took their own lives.

Of the 29 local and training prisons inspected during the year, inspectors judged 21 of them to be ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in the area of safety.

Peter Clarke said:

“Why have so many of our jails become unsafe? Many of the reasons have been well documented. The prevalence of drugs inside prisons and the seeming inability to keep them out has been a major factor. Debt, bullying and self-segregation by prisoners looking to escape the violence generated by the drugs trade are commonplace. This has all been compounded by staffing levels in many jails that are simply too low to keep order and run a decent regime that allows prisoners to be let out of their cells to get to training and education and have access to basic facilities.”

“What is it like for prisoners on a day-to-day basis? I have often been appalled by the conditions in which we hold many prisoners. Far too often I have seen men sharing a cell in which they are locked up for as much as 23 hours a day, in which they are required to eat all their meals, and in which there is an unscreened lavatory. On several occasions prisoners have pointed out insect and vermin infestations to me. In many prisons I have seen shower and lavatory facilities that are filthy and dilapidated but with no credible or affordable plans for refurbishment. I have seen many prisoners who are obviously under the influence of drugs.

“I am frequently shown evidence of repeated self-harm, and in every prison I find far too many prisoners suffering from varying degrees of learning disability or mental impairment. I have personally witnessed violence between prisoners, and seen both the physical and psychologically traumatic impact that serious violence has had on staff. My experience is no substitute for the broader evidence-based findings, but if I have experienced this, what must be the impact on the prisoners and staff who endure these things every day of their lives?”

Some of the most concerning findings during the year came from inspections of the custodial estate for children and young people. In the light of revelations last year about apparent mistreatment of children at Medway Secure Training Centre (STC), the Inspectorate maintained the momentum of inspections at STCs and young offender institutions (YOIs). At that time there were around 609 children held in YOIs and 155 in STCs.

  • Youth Justice Board Annual Statistics for 2015-16 showed self-harm rates at 8.9 incidents per 100 children compared with 4.1 in 2011;
  • assault rates were 18.9 per 100 children compared with 9.7 in 2011;
  • HMI Prisons’ own surveys showed that 46% of boys felt unsafe at their establishment; and
  • the proportion of boys engaged in a job (16%), vocational training (11%) and offending behaviour programmes (16%) across the YOIs was lower in 2015-16 than at any point since 2010-11.

Peter Clarke said:

“In early 2017 I felt compelled to bring to the attention of ministers my serious concern about our findings in the youth estate. By February 2017, we concluded that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.”

“The speed of decline has been staggering. In 2013-14 we found that nine out of 12 institutions were graded as good or reasonably good for safety. The reasons for this slump in standards are no doubt complex, but need to be understood and addressed as a matter of urgency.”

“There seems to be something of a vicious circle. Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures which in turn frustrate those being held there. We have seen regimes were boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where there do not appear to be any credible plans to break the cycle of violence.”

Other findings include:

  • outcomes for prisoners in the five women’s prisons inspected in 2016-17 were better, with strong outcomes for safety, respect and resettlement, although the incidence of self-inflicted death and self-harm among women has risen dramatically;
  • inspectors went to three immigration removal centres (IRCs), the Cedars pre-departure accommodation for families with children, 18 short-term holding facilities and one escorted overseas removal;
  • new psychoactive substances were beginning to have an impact within immigration detention;
  • there had been some improvements in the Rule 35 process, designed to protect those with serious health problems or who had been victims of torture;
  • despite police custody being considerably professionalised in recent years, there needs to be a continuing focus on safety, with still too many deficiencies in the governance of the use of force.

From 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017, the Inspectorate published 86 individual inspection reports on prisons, police custody suites, immigration removal centres and other custodial establishments.  Various thematic reports were published during the year, including Finding a way forward for prisoners serving sentences of imprisonment for public protection. This report was the second HMI Prisons has produced highlighting the injustice suffered by many prisoners who, through no fault of their own, are unable to demonstrate whether the risk they pose has reduced, and therefore be in a position to make an application for release. While Ministry of Justice figures show that there are still 3,528 prisoners with such sentences at the end of March 2017, a decrease of 15% on the last 12 months, the proportion of those prisoners who have already served their tariff continues to increase, from 81% to 85%.

The Inspectorate continued as the coordinating body for the National Preventive Mechanism, the UK response to its international obligations arising from the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. In 2016, the NPM appointed a fully independent chair.

Peter Clarke said:

“This year has been marked by an unprecedented political and public focus on the need to improve conditions in our prisons. In February 2017 the Prisons and Courts Bill was introduced into Parliament, but lost when the General Election was called.

“I am concerned by the fact that this year we found – for the first time – that the number of recommendations that had been fully achieved was lower than the number not achieved. In many cases the response to previous recommendations has been unforgivably poor. We found across the entirety of our inspections that 42% of recommendations on safety from previous inspections had not been achieved. Safety is the basis upon which any other constructive activity in a prison is dependent. Reform is overdue.”

– ENDS –

Notes to editors:

  1. A copy of the report, published on 18 July 2017, 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. HM Inspectorate of Prisons regularly inspects prisons, young offender institutions, immigration removal centres, immigration short-term holding facilities and overseas escorts and court custody. We inspect police custody suites and Border Force customs custody jointly with HMI Constabulary and secure training centres jointly with Ofsted. By invitation, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons also carries out inspections of military detention facilities, prisons in Northern Ireland, and some other overseas prisons and custodial institutions in jurisdictions with links to the UK.
  4. The UK’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) was established under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The NPM consists of 21 existing bodies throughout the UK, which are independent and have the right regularly to inspect all places of detention. It is coordinated by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and reports to the UN treaty body.
  5. Ministry of Justice Safer Custody statistics can be found here.
  6. Youth Justice statistics 2015-16 can be found here (2 MB).
  7. Ministry of Justice Offender Management Caseload statistics can be found here (412 kB).
  8. 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.