HMP Huntercombe – well-led and impressive progress on rehabilitation and release planning, but concerns over limited time out of cells

Read the report: HMP Huntercombe

HMP Huntercombe in Oxfordshire, one of only two prisons solely holding convicted foreign nationals, was found by inspectors to be “well led and progressive” but to have missed opportunities to increase time out of cell safely.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons conducted a scrutiny visit inspection in December 2020. The prison held about 400 men, a reduction in the size of the population since inspectors last visited in 2017.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said:

“Lower prisoner numbers contributed to the ability of staff to deliver a consistent regime throughout the pandemic and prisoners were able to have a shower and take outside exercise every day. However, most still spent 23 hours a day in their cells, and this was affecting mental health for some.

“About a quarter of prisoners had some form of employment, which increased time out of cell, but there were missed opportunities for further expanding activity in a safe way. This was partly because the prison had to wait for the approval of centrally managed recovery plans.”

On a positive note, inspectors found that the “speedy and highly effective” roll-out of video-calling technology had helped prisoners to maintain family relationships. This showed what the prison was capable of achieving, Mr Taylor said.

“The governor provided visible and enabling leadership, characterised by clear communication and regular personal engagement with prisoners and staff.”

The physical environment at the prison was clean and cells were in good order. Prisoner cleaners and ‘social distancing champions’ were deployed to clean high contact points between cohorts of prisoners being let out of their cells.

Recorded violence and use of force had remained reasonably low, though a fifth of prisoners felt unsafe and a third that they had been victimised by staff. The latter proportion was higher among both younger and black and minority ethnic prisoners.

Mr Taylor added:

“The reasons for this were unclear, but prisoners made a range of comments about staff, including dismissive attitudes to their concerns about the amount of time locked up, anxiety about immigration cases and concern about inconsistent social distancing.”

Access to legal advice at Huntercombe was good though inspectors assessed that the use of the prison incentives scheme to sanction prisoners who were considered to be non-compliant with the Home Office was inappropriate. Mr Taylor commented:

“The prison was following a national policy which allowed the prisons’ incentive scheme to be used to sanction prisoners for non-compliance. Prisoners had a right to challenge the Home Office about immigration matters and should not have been sanctioned by the prison for refusing to sign immigration paperwork. This also confused the prison’s role, in managing and caring for prisoners, with Home Office procedures.”

Inspectors were pleased that Huntercombe had made “very significant and sustained progress” in addressing weakness in risk management and release planning identified in 2017. Impressively, release on temporary licence (ROTL) had become established to support rehabilitation and family contact, and it had continued during the COVID-19 period. There had been no ROTL failures.

Overall, Mr Taylor said:

“This is one of the most positive scrutiny visits that we have so far undertaken. The prison was well led and progressive and, while we have identified some concerns that need to be addressed, prisoners generally spoke positively of their experiences at Huntercombe. The prison and HM Prison and Probation Service leadership are to be commended for the work they have done to respond to long-standing shortcomings in rehabilitation and release planning.”

– End –

Notes to editors

1. Read the report: HMP Huntercombe. This report was published on 19 January 2021.

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.

4. On page 7 of the report you can read facts and history about HMP Huntercombe.

5. On pages 10-11 you can read key concerns and recommendations and seven examples of notable positive practice identified in this scrutiny visit.

6. This scrutiny visit took place between 1 and 8-9 December 2020.

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