HMP Dartmoor - affected by planning blight and with severe restrictions in COVID-19

Read the report: HMP Dartmoor

HMP Dartmoor, a training prison in Devon holding around 600 prisoners, was found to be suffering the effects of living under a closure notice for many years, with dilapidated accommodation and insufficient investment in technology to keep drugs out. During the COVID-19 period, most prisoners had only an hour a day out of cells.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Managers had been operating under a closure notice since 2013 and the ‘planning blight’ mentioned at the last full inspection (in 2017) had continued.” Many of the buildings needed capital investment to stop water getting in (with buckets used about the prison to catch leaks).

Dartmoor, one of the country’s oldest prisons, also needed the kind of security equipment seen in many other prisons to tackle drugs, including an ion detector to test incoming mail for illicit items. In the Inspectorate survey 32% of prisoners said it was easy to get illicit drugs.

“In addition,” Mr Clarke said, “it was clear that the closure notice had affected staff morale. This was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. In our survey, 55% of staff who responded to it said that morale had declined during the pandemic compared to just 5% who said it had improved.”

Time out of cell was very limited, and most prisoners were only unlocked for one hour a day. Work had continued for about a third of the population in the kitchens and gardens and in wing work roles. However, many of the workshops and all the education classrooms remained closed, though the education provider was now distributing a wide range of in-cell workbooks.

The restricted time out of cell meant that there were very few meaningful incentives for prisoners who engaged well with staff and the regime. Levels of violence remained low and violence against prisoners had reduced, although there had been an increase in assaults against staff since the start of the restrictions. Use of force by staff had doubled during the restrictions.

While self-harm had reduced, the number of ACCT documents (assessment, care in custody and teamwork case management of prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm) opened by the prison had increased during the pandemic as wing staff identified increasing numbers of prisoners struggling with the restrictions. Inspectors, who carried out a scrutiny visit in September 2020, were concerned at the lack of management oversight and the poor quality of documents they reviewed.

On a more positive note, 82% of prisoners – in a population with many older prisoners – said that staff treated them with respect, and inspectors found that relationships were generally good. All prisoners lived in single cells.

There had been no confirmed positive COVID-19 cases since April. About a third of the population was over 50 and many prisoners had long-term health conditions. It was positive that services were being restored but there were very long waiting lists for the dentist, optician, podiatrist and physiotherapist.

There was limited provision to help prisoners maintain contact with their friends and family. There were no in-cell telephones and prisoners could only access telephones on the landings during the hour they were unlocked.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“Despite the planned closure, Dartmoor continues to hold more than 600 prisoners in accommodation and facilities that need significant investment to make them fit for purpose. Staff have been working under notice of closure for seven years with a predictable impact on morale. The pandemic has made a difficult situation worse. Managers had worked well to implement national guidance, which was positive, and the prison remained reasonably safe and respectful. However, there were significant shortfalls that needed addressing including the poor infrastructure, limited regime and the lack of equality and diversity provision.”

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Notes to editors

  1. Read the report: HMP Dartmoor. This report was published on 3 November 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 Dartmoor is in Princetown on Dartmoor in the county of Devon. It is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and received Grade II heritage listing in 1987. HMP Dartmoor first opened its gates in 1809 during the Napoleonic wars to hold French prisoners of war. It also held US prisoners from the war of 1812. It is now a category C training prison. The prison runs an integrated regime where prisoners who are vulnerable because of the nature of their offence are located with mainstream prisoners. At the time of our visit just over half the population were convicted of sexual offences and 84% were serving sentences of more than four years.
  5. This scrutiny visit took place on 22 and 29–30 September 2020.
  6. On pages 15–17 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and three examples of notable positive practice identified by inspectors.
  7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.