HM Chief Inspector of Prisons demands urgent action from Secretary of State over continued safety concerns at Chelmsford Prison

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor is so troubled by the lack of progress to address violence, safety and poor conditions at HMP & YOI Chelmsford, a men’s local prison in Essex, that he has issued a rare Urgent Notification (UN) requiring immediate action from the Secretary of State for Justice.

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) visited the jail in August 2021 and identified numerous significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of prisoners. Performance at Chelmsford has been assessed as deteriorating in a series of inspections since 2014, with inspectors finding “chronic and apparently intractable failings”.

Mr Taylor said the 2021 findings were particularly disappointing as his predecessor, Peter Clarke, had decided against instigating the UN protocol at the last full inspection in 2018, despite evidence of many worrying failings. Mr. Clarke thought there may be grounds for some “cautious optimism” but, Mr Taylor commented:

“We found that the optimism expressed three years ago was misplaced. The latest inspection has shown that these improvements have not materialised.”

Since 2018, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has supported Chelmsford in what were termed ‘Special Measures’ and then with a proposed Prison Performance Support Plan (PPSP), which had barely begun by August 2021. A new governor has also been appointed. However, Mr Taylor said:

“It was too early to confirm any real improvements and it was clear to us that he and his team would need significant support.”

Among key concerns were:

  • Safety. Mr Taylor said Chelmsford had “sadly failed in its responsibility to keep prisoners safe.” It was found to be one of the country’s most violent local prisons. There had also been eight self-inflicted deaths since 2018 and a further four non-natural deaths in three years. In addition, self-harm had continued to rise for the fourth successive inspection.
  • A negative staff culture. Although some staff were committed and constructive, many others described very low morale, disillusionment and disengagement. Many staff, for example, failed to respond to even basic requests from prisoners and too many were dismissive in their dealings with prisoners or evidenced only limited empathy. Almost half of the prisoners said that they had been victimised by staff, particularly those prisoners with disabilities and mental health problems.
  • Lack of accountability and management oversight. This enabled poor performance and behaviour to go unchallenged. Many staff had witnessed poor behaviour among their peers and too few took responsibility for the duties to which they had been deployed. Emergency cell bells were often only answered after long delays.
  • A poor daily regime. Many prisoners were locked in their cell for almost 23 hours a day. This reflected COVID-19 restrictions but even in 2018 many prisoners had been locked in their cell for 22 hours a day. Plans to reintroduce a meaningful regime were limited and being implemented far too slowly.

The Chelmsford Urgent Notification is the ninth time the protocol has been used since it was introduced in 2017. It is used rarely, in inspections which identify significant concerns. The Chief Inspector writes publicly to the Secretary of State for Justice who is required to respond within 28 days with plans to improve the prison.

Mr Taylor concluded his letter by saying:

“HMP & YOI Chelmsford is a violent, unsafe prison in which conditions for prisoners have declined disturbingly over recent years, despite attempts by HMPPS to support improvement. Many failings stem from a negative and demoralised staff culture which results in little apparent concern for (or attention to) the welfare and basic needs of a complex and, at times, vulnerable population.

“Chelmsford will not improve without a sustained drive to make sure that all staff members take responsibility for ensuring safety, decency and engagement with training and education in a meaningful regime. This will require strong, consistent leadership at all levels within the prison and much more effective support from HMPPS than the approach it has taken in recent years, which failed completely to arrest the drift and decline which must have been obvious to the service.”

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Notes to editors

  1. Read the Chelmsford Urgent Notification letter, along with a debrief note supplied to the prison governor.
  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 more about Urgent Notifications.
  4. Since 2017, Urgent Notifications have been issued following inspections at HMP Nottingham, HMP Exeter, HMP Birmingham, HMP Bedford, HMP Bristol, HMYOI Feltham A and Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre (twice).
  5. This inspection took place between 9 and 20 August 2021.
  6. Please contact – 07880 787452 – if you would like more information.