Chief Inspector of Prisons demands urgent action from Justice Secretary to tackle violence and poor safety at HMP Exeter

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has put the Justice Secretary publicly on notice that he must explain how conditions at HMP Exeter will be improved as a matter of urgency. Inspectors found disturbingly high levels of violence and self-harm and a serious failure to tackle safety issues.

Peter Clarke told David Gauke safety at HMP Exeter was “unequivocally poor”, prompting him to invoke the Urgent Notification (UN) protocol, under which the Justice Secretary agrees to take personal responsibility for driving improvements at a prison identified by the Chief Inspector as suffering from significant problems, particularly relating to safety.

It is only the second time the protocol, which came into force in November last year, has been used. A similar notification was issued over the “fundamentally unsafe” HMP Nottingham in January 2018.

Mr Clarke’s letter has been published today. Mr Gauke has 28 days from 30 May to respond, also publicly, explaining how the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) plan to improve HMP Exeter.

An unannounced inspection of HMP Exeter took place between 14 and 24 May 2018. Mr Clarke told Mr Gauke the principal reasons for invoking the UN were that “safety in the prison has significantly worsened in many respects” since the previous inspection in August 2016; and the prison had therefore attracted the lowest possible HMI Prisons grading of ‘poor’ for safety. Mr Clarke added: “There have been six self-inflicted deaths, five of which were in 2017. Despite some creditable efforts to implement recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following those deaths, the overall level of safety at HMP Exeter is unequivocally poor.”

Inspectors made some troubling findings:

  • Self-harm during the six months before the inspection was running at a higher rate than in any similar prisons. It had risen by 40% since the last inspection.
  • Assaults against both prisoners and staff were among the highest inspectors had seen, and use of force by staff was inadequately governed.
  • Illicit drugs were rife and nearly a quarter of prisoners tested positive for drugs.
  • Living conditions for too many prisoners were unacceptably poor.

The letter to Mr Gauke, and briefing notes based on the end-of-inspection briefing for the prison management team, are attached to this release.

In concluding his letter, Mr Clarke told Mr Gauke: “The senior management team that is currently in place at HMP Exeter is largely the same as at the last inspection in 2016. The failure to address the actual and perceived lack of safety, and the issues that contribute to both, is so serious that it has led me to have significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of prisoners at HMP Exeter and to the inevitable conclusion to invoke the UN protocol.”

– Ends –

Notes to editors

  1. Mr Clarke’s Urgent Notification letter to Mr Gauke, and accompanying notes, can be found here.
  2. On 30 November 2017, Mr Clarke and David Lidington, then Justice Secretary, signed the Urgent Notification protocol – an extension of the existing working protocol between HMI Prisons and the Ministry of Justice. Mr Clarke said at the time: “The Secretary of State has accepted that he and his successors will be held publicly accountable for delivering an urgent, robust and effective response when HMI Prisons assesses that treatment or conditions in a jail raise such significant concerns that urgent action is required. The protocol requires the Secretary of State to respond to an urgent notification letter from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons within 28 days. The Chief Inspector’s notification and the Secretary of State’s response will both be published. See here for more information on the Urgent Notification protocol.
  3. The most recent inspection of HMP Exeter began on 14 May with a visit by researchers conducting a survey of prisoners on a range of issues. Inspectors went into the jail between 21 – 24 May 2018.
  4. The inspection was unannounced.
  5. The debriefing notes accompanying the Urgent Notification letter to the Secretary of State are drawn from the initial HMI Prisons findings shared with the acting governor of HMP Exeter at the end of the inspection. As is the case with all HMI Prisons inspections, these early findings are indicative and may be changed at the discretion of the Chief Inspector, after due consideration or following the emergence of new evidence (all HMI Prisons evidence and conclusions are subject to a rigorous fact-checking process). However, it was the view of the Chief Inspector that the initial findings at HMP Exeter were clear and concerning enough to warrant his decision to invoke the Urgent Notification protocol.
  6. A full report on HMP Exeter will be published in due course, around 18 weeks after the end of the inspection.
  7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons press office on 020 3334 0357 or 07880 787452, or at if you would like more information.