Chief Inspector of Prisons' final annual report - positive signs but many deep problems will remain after COVID-19

Read the report: Annual Report 2019-20

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has published his fifth and final annual report, covering full inspections of places of detention in 2019–20 – some positive and some deeply troubling – as well as scrutiny of the enormous impact of COVID-19 in its early stages.

COVID-19 will overshadow life in detention for months to come and the Inspectorate will continue to visit establishments in a way that is both safe and capable of producing clear and independent evidence of welfare in a period of severe restrictions on daily regimes. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) has conducted more than 50 scrutiny visits during the COVID-19 period.

Mr Clarke warned, however: “Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on prisons, we must not forget what we had already seen during inspections earlier in the year.

“The challenges faced by many prisons, and the systemic weaknesses that we identified in some key areas, will not have gone away because of the health emergency. When the immediate crisis is over, there will still be an urgent need to address the serious issues that adversely affect the safety and decency of our prisons, the opportunity they offer for rehabilitation and their contribution to reducing reoffending.”

Some inspections in 2019–20 provided grounds for cautious optimism. Mr Clarke said: “HM Inspectorate of Prisons often refers to the impact of leadership and good management on the outcomes experienced by prisoners.

“In 2017, HMP Liverpool was the subject of one of the most damning inspection reports in recent years, and at the time I commented publicly on a failure of leadership at local, regional and national levels. A new governor was appointed, and the process of recovery began. When I returned to Liverpool in September 2019, the prison was almost unrecognisable. The filth and vermin had gone, and prisoners were no longer being held in degrading, squalid conditions.”

Cardiff, a local prison that has faced many challenges, also showed strong improvement in 2019, Mr Clarke added. It was reassuring that in some HMI Prisons Independent Reviews of Progress (IRPs) inspectors saw the positive impact that effective leadership had at other prisons that had suffered from poor performance, such as at Lewes and Channings Wood.

In some IRPs, though, “progress had too often been disappointingly slow. In several cases, it had been many months before there had been any meaningful progress.” At HMP Pentonville in January 2020 inspectors found that little had been done to respond to a very poor inspection report in 2019 until a few days before the IRP itself.

Poor or inconsistent leadership “can and does lead to appalling failure, as was the case in the year at HMYOI Feltham A,” Mr Clarke remarked. The unit holding 15–18-year-olds at the west London prison was subject to an HMI Prisons Urgent Notification in summer 2019.

In January 2020 the Inspectorate published a disturbing thematic inspection report about the separation of children in custody, where children are unable to mix with their peers either to maintain order, as part of a punishment, due to the prison running a limited regime, or their own decision to self-isolate. “The findings were, frankly, a disgrace,” Mr Clarke said. “In many cases children were being held in circumstances that amounted to solitary confinement.”

Overall, safety was still a major problem in prisons holding adult men in 2019–20. Although inspectors found some improved living conditions, Mr Clarke commented, “as I have reported in previous years far too many prisoners spend much of their lives locked in shared, overcrowded, insanitary cells.”

Drugs, generating debts and violence, also remained a significant problem. Mr Clarke said: “Far too slowly, technology that has been available for many years in other sectors has begun to be introduced into some prisons. For instance, scanners that can detect internally concealed drugs are now being introduced. My experience in those prisons where I have seen them operating is that they are warmly welcomed by staff, who feel safer.” He urged HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to use such technology to its full potential.

The annual report focuses on some deep-seated problems in prisons:

  • Inspectors found widespread poor performance in the area of purposeful activity, which “sits at the heart of whether a prison can offer a safe, decent and rehabilitative environment.”
  • Given the obvious linkage between excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse, it was also concerning to find that the amount of time for which prisoners were unlocked for time out of cell was often unacceptably poor. Mr Clarke asked: “Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year? Prisoners often tell us they are harming themselves to gain some attention, for instance if their applications or complaints are being ignored.”
  • Mr Clarke called for a more sophisticated analysis of self-harm, particularly in women’s prisons where, for many years, levels of self-harm have been far higher. It was also worrying, Mr Clarke said, in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, that an apparent levelling off in self-harm was not properly analysed or explained, “and some even tried to argue that longer periods locked in cells did not contribute to levels of self-harm. Such superficial commentary should, in my view, be treated with extreme caution.”
  • The ability of prisoners to rehabilitate and progress towards a safe and purposeful release back into the community is, in most cases, critically dependant on a process known as the Offender Assessment System (OASys). For several years, Mr Clarke said, “we have found that this system is failing.”

Inspections in immigration removal centres showed, “as usual, that immigration detainees suffered a great deal of anxiety because of the uncertainty of their predicament. The slow progress of their immigration cases and the open-ended nature of their detention were issues for them. Notably, self-harm had risen at all centres.”

Other findings in the year, including inspections of police custody suites, are detailed in the report.

– Ends –

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the report, published on 20 October 2020, 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 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) 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. HMI Prisons is a member of and coordinates the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). The NPM was established under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It consists of 21 existing bodies throughout the UK, which are independent and have the right regularly to inspect all places of detention, and reports to the UN treaty body.
  5. Please contact John Steele at HMI Prisons on 07880 787452 if you would like more information or if you have any difficulties in downloading the report.