HMP Bristol – well-managed response to COVID-19 and overall improvement

Read the report: HMP Bristol

HMP Bristol, a category B local and resettlement prison, was found by inspectors to have used local initiative to maximise the amount of time prisoners had out of cells during the period of COVID-19 restrictions.

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) were also pleased to find clear evidence of general improvement in the prison, which was subject to an Urgent Notification after a troubling inspection in May 2019.

Inspectors carried out a scrutiny visit – designed to enable inspection activity during the COVID-19 period – in September 2020. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “We saw enough to be confident that, in our view, Bristol was a much-improved institution.”

Inspectors found a well-led establishment that had taken a more thoughtful approach to regime restrictions than they had seen in other prisons. Given the high levels of suicide and self-harm in the prison, Mr Clarke said, “appropriate care had been taken to balance the risk of the virus against the impact on prisoners’ mental well-being of a very restricted regime.

“Within the limitations of the national restrictions, the governor had used some local initiative to keep activities open and maximise time unlocked, which had reduced prisoners’ frustration.” Although some prisoners only had one hour 45 minutes a day out of cell, almost half the prisoners were out for considerably longer, engaging in a variety of purposeful activities. All workshops had remained open during the pandemic, albeit with reduced numbers to enable safe social distancing.

These efforts were underpinned by a robust approach to cleanliness and social distancing. There had been no confirmed COVID-19 cases among prisoners since the start of the pandemic.

High levels of suicide and self-harm remained a concern, with two self-inflicted deaths in 2020 and one further very recent unexplained death which was under investigation. Recorded self-harm incidents were three times higher than at comparator prisons. Mr Clarke added, though: “Considerable effort had been made to reduce self-harm, and there were very early indications that these initiatives might be having an impact.”

The support for prisoners with disabilities and those requiring social care had improved significantly since the inspection in 2019. However, concerning perceptions among prisoners from a black, Asian, mixed or minority ethnic background needed to be addressed.

Emergency health care and an increasing level of routine care had remained available. However, dental needs were not being fully met due to national restrictions and local access issues. At the time of the visit, 99 prisoners were on the waiting list for treatment, and some had been waiting for more than six months. Inspectors were told that teeth were being extracted that might otherwise have been treatable.

Social visits had resumed earlier than in many prisons. However, on a more concerning note, increasing use of in-cell telephones during the pandemic had led to a substantial backlog of phone monitoring which needed urgently addressing. The percentage of prisoners released without settled accommodation had reduced from 47% in May 2019 but, at 25% during the pandemic, it was still far too high.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“At long last there had been important changes at Bristol. Not only had the response to the pandemic been very well managed with the support of the prison group director, but strong and energetic leadership had kept work going during this period to improve the prison. We found a more purposeful, safe and decent establishment than at the time of our previous inspection, despite the regime restrictions. The prison now needs the opportunity to embed and sustain this progress with continued additional support from HM Prison and Probation Service.”

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Notes to editors

1. Read the report: HMP Bristol. This report was published on 23 October 2020.

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 Bristol is a category B local and resettlement prison holding approximately 500 young and adult male prisoners. The prison was built in 1883. B and C wings were added in the 1960s.

5. Read more about Urgent Notifications, or read about the HMP Bristol Urgent Notification.

6. This scrutiny visit took place between 14 and 22-23 September 2020.

7. On pages 13-14 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and six examples of notable positive practice identified by inspectors.

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