HMP Erlestoke – safety, decency and purposeful activity decline during COVID-19 lockdown

Read the report: HMP Erlestoke

Inspectors found a “very troubling” picture at HMP Erlestoke of violence, indiscipline and self-harm, with increased use of force by staff to get prisoners back into poor-quality cells in which they had been locked up for most of the day for more than five months.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) conducted a scrutiny visit (SV) to Erlestoke in August 2020 to assess its success in returning to acceptable conditions following the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restricted regime during it. Like other prisons, the category C prison in Wiltshire had effectively protected prisoners from the virus in the early stages of the pandemic, using severely restricted daily regimes.

However, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that overall “the response to the COVID-19 pandemic at HMP Erlestoke has led to a less safe, less decent and less purposeful prison.”

He added: “Although the amount of time prisoners could spend out of their cells had been increased in the early stages of lockdown, during our visit in August 2020 most prisoners still only received 45-minute sessions in the morning and the afternoon, and an additional half an hour one evening a week. Prisoners reported being frustrated about daily delays in the delivery of this limited regime, and about the lack of activity.”

In addition to the slow recovery from severe restrictions, inspectors were disturbed by other aspects of the visit. Mr Clarke said that had the visit been a full, pre-COVID-19 inspection, he would seriously have considered invoking the Urgent Notification (UN) protocol, in which he publicly alerts the Secretary of State to significant problems in a prison, and which requires the Secretary of State to respond with plans to improve within 28 days.

Instead, Mr Clarke raised his urgent concerns shortly after the visit in a letter to the Secretary of State, Robert Buckland QC. Mr Clarke’s letter and Mr Buckland’s response are published in the annexes to the scrutiny visit report. Worrying findings included:

  • Despite prisoners being locked up for most of the day, the level of assaults had remained similar to the level before the lockdown. A quarter of prisoners reported feeling unsafe.
  • Incidents involving the use of force by staff had more than doubled since the beginning of lockdown and were often used to enforce the restricted regime.
  • There had also been a spike in the number of serious incidents of indiscipline in the weeks before, during and after the scrutiny visit.
  • Self-harm by prisoners had increased significantly since the lockdown and there were deficiencies in the assessment, care in custody and teamwork case management process for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm. Some prisoners who were self-isolating received less time out of their cell and not all had access to the open air.
  • In the segregation unit inspectors saw treatment that was “degrading and unacceptable.” They found one prisoner and were made aware of two others who had been without toilets, running water and a cell call bell system for approximately two weeks. They had been given buckets while waiting for cell toilets to be fixed.
  • Most residential units were poorly maintained, and some were dilapidated. Inspectors found broken cell windows with sharp shards of glass, damaged observation panels, blocked toilets and showers that were not working. There was also racist graffiti.

While the prisoner survey suggested that staff treated prisoners with respect, most prisoners also said that the incentives scheme was ineffective; antisocial behaviour was rewarded and prisoners often resorted to it to get their needs met.

Security staff had been proactive in intercepting drugs but 32% of prisoners nonetheless said it was easy to get drugs in the prison. Significant amounts of illicit alcohol, so-called hooch, had also been found – 370 litres since the start of the pandemic.

Health services were mostly reasonable and although workshops and face-to-face education no longer took place, the education provider had created distance learning packages, delivering some qualifications.

Mr Clarke said the support in place for prisoners to maintain contact with their family was disappointing. “Social visits had only resumed two weeks before our visit and take-up was very low. Many prisoners’ families lived far away from the prison. The short duration of visits, together with restrictions, such as the prohibition on physical contact, meant that for many families, visits were not a realistic or worthwhile option.”

The offender management unit had maintained good staffing levels and the department had continued with face-to-face contact in more complex cases, although some work was done by telephone or written correspondence. Mr Clarke added, however: “For most prisoners, there was little opportunity to progress. In fact, the prison appeared to have lost its purpose, which was to address the offending behaviour and reduce the risks of long-term offenders.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This was a very troubling visit […] Some of the issues should be amenable to local resolution, if effective leadership can be brought to bear. Others appear to be systemic, arising from the apparent inflexibility of the recovery programme […] I am in no doubt that well-led and properly supported local innovation and flexibility are now urgently needed to restore the acceptable treatment and conditions of the prisoners held there. I have now received a written response from the Secretary of State which in effect is an Action Plan to address the issues raised in this report. In due course HM Inspectorate of Prisons will return to Erlestoke to report on progress.”

– End –

Notes to editors

1. A copy of the full HMP Erlestoke report, published on 22 September 2020, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website.

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. Read about the development of scrutiny visits (SVs) in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. These are short inspections which, while not as exhaustive as our full inspections, are more in-depth than the short scrutiny visits used in the early months of the pandemic. They include the reintroduction of a prisoner survey.

4. HMP Erlestoke is a category C prison in Wiltshire, holding nearly 500 prisoners. The majority were serving lengthy sentences, about a third of which were indeterminate or life sentences. Erlestoke was built on the former grounds of Erlestoke Manor House. The site was taken over by the then prison commissioners in 1960 for use as a detention centre. In 1977, it became a young prisoners’ centre, and was converted to a category C men’s training prison in 1988. Life-sentenced prisoners were first received in the 1990s. In 2018, Erlestoke received its first young offenders and in April 2020, the prison became a 50/50 resettlement and training prison. During the COVID-19 pandemic the establishment introduced temporary modular accommodation to reduce the number of shared cells.

5. This scrutiny visit took place between 11 and 18-19 August 2020.

6. On pages 12-14 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and two examples of notable positive practice identified by inspectors.

7. In the annexes to the report we publish the Chief Inspector of Prisons’ letter to the Secretary of State shortly after the scrutiny visit and the response to the Chief Inspector from the Secretary of State.

8. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.