HMP High Down – prison undermined by years of uncertainty over its role

Read the report: HMP High Down

An inspection of HMP High Down, a large prison in Surrey holding about 1,150 men, highlighted significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of prisoners and one issue above all which had seriously affected the running of the establishment.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said that in 2018 his predecessor, Peter Clarke, expressed serious concern that uncertainty about the prison’s future role had undermined High Down’s ability to provide purposeful activity. High Down had been told it would change from a category B local prison, taking prisoners from local courts, to a category C training establishment but the Inspectorate in 2018 could not get a clear answer on when that was going to happen.

Mr Taylor said: “Three years later, and five years after High Down’s transition from a category B local prison to a category C training prison was first proposed, it is astonishing that this situation had still not been resolved.” The current governor had accepted category C prisoners from across the prison estate and even sent a newsletter to prisoners confirming the new direction for High Down.

“Then very shortly before our visit [in March and April 2021] and just after this news was communicated to prisoners, senior HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) leaders suspended the change in function.” High Down remains a local category B prison, but without the full-time activity or offending behaviour programme places that are needed by the majority of its now category C population. By March 2021, the prison held about 900 category C prisoners, most of whom had been moved into High Down to fulfil its new role.

There had been no prisoner or staff deaths due to COVID-19, but hundreds of prisoners had been isolated following possible contact with infection during the months before the inspection. They had faced isolation periods of 10 days with no time out of cell at all other than a weekly shower. A good number had experienced these levels of isolation two or three times with irregular welfare checks.

Recorded levels of self-harm had reduced during the pandemic and violence had decreased, but use of force by staff remained at pre-pandemic levels – much, the report noted, occurring when prisoners refused to return to cells after short periods unlocked.

High Down’s communal areas were clean, but many prisoners continued to share small, cramped cells designed for one. Prisoners did not always get a daily shower.

Health care provision was poor and caused serious concern for inspectors. There had been a lack of consistent leadership, severe staff shortages and health care staff said they felt compromised by the unmanageable demands on their time.

Progress had been too slow to provide prisoners with purposeful activity 12 months into COVID-19 restrictions. Most prisoners still had only one hour out of their cells each day, sometimes less when time in the open air was cancelled. It had taken five months to launch in-cell education packs. However, about 350 prisoners had a full-time job.

The work of the offender management unit was fundamentally undermined by the decision to reverse the prison’s change of function. There was little contact between prison offender managers and prisoners and there was a large backlog of assessments of prisoners’ risk and needs. However, there was a good focus on the release of high-risk prisoners, though staffing difficulties had prevented staff from listening to the calls of prisoners who required public protection monitoring.

Overall, Mr Taylor said:

“We found a troubled prison confronting difficult, long-term challenges. It is a serious indictment of HMPPS leadership that the governor and her team should have been asked to spend so much of the pandemic distracted by a change in function which was ultimately suspended. The prison leadership need an early, definite and final decision on the future direction of the establishment and category C prisoners who were brought to High Down deserve to know how their needs will be met to help them emerge from prison with less risk of reoffending.”

– End –

Notes to editors

  1. Read the report: HMP High Down This report was published on 13 May 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 scrutiny visits (SVs) and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
  4. On pages 5-6 of the report you can read facts and history about HMP High Down.
  5. On pages 7-9 you can read key concerns and recommendations and two examples of notable positive practice identified in this scrutiny visit.
  6. This scrutiny visit took place on 23 March and 7-8 April 2021.
  7. Please contact – 07880 787452 – if you would like more information.