Each year the prison inspectors produce a summary of the finding made during the previous 12 months. The reports are lengthy (!) and cover the inspections carried out in the last 12 months.
In the summary of the report the inspector said:
Despite final COVID-19 restrictions being lifted in May 2022, we found far too many prisons continuing to operate greatly reduced regimes in the last year. This meant that prisoners remained locked in their cells for long periods of time without the purposeful activity that would support a successful reintegration back into society at the end of their sentences. Over the last year I have consistently raised concerns with governors, the prison service and ministers that prisoners who have not had sufficient opportunities to become involved with education, training or work, and have spent their sentences languishing in their cells, are more likely to reoffend when they come out. Prisons have a duty to protect the public and act as a punishment for those who have offended, but they also have an obligation to make sure that prisoners in their care are given the help they need to move away from crime into more productive lives. It is poor use of the average of £45,000 a year to keep someone in prison if, when they come out, they return to criminality and create more victims of crime.
I have been given many reasons for the lack of regime, which have included insufficient prison officer numbers, inexperience of staff, industrial relations, overcrowding, and poor delivery by prison education providers, but much of the failure must come down to leadership within both prisons and the prison service. When we inspected jails where strong leaders had ambitious plans to get prisoners out of their cells, such as at Coldingley or Channings Wood, there was drive and momentum to get back to pre-pandemic levels of activity. While I recognise the challenges in reopening regimes and am not encouraging practice that would increase the risk of violence for either prisoners or staff, I have become increasingly frustrated by prisons whose future plans are so vague that it is hard to see when progress is going to be made.
In some jails we came across a nervousness that opening the regime would lead to levels of violence that prisons had experienced before the pandemic, but the evidence for many years has been clear – that ultimately, locking prisoners away in their cells does not make them, staff or the public safer. In prisons such as Elmley or Erlestoke we found prisoners out of their cells for longer than elsewhere without any notable increase in violence.
It has been in category C prisons that I have been most concerned about levels of activity. Designated either as training or resettlement prisons, their remit is to help prisoners fill the gaps in their skills and experience to allow them to make a successful return to the community. Unlike reception jails, some prisoners will spend many years in category C establishments, making their role in supporting prisoners’ progress crucial. Many, such as Onley and Ranby, are situated in large open sites with some very good facilities. It was therefore disappointing to find in such prisons empty workshops, overgrown farms and gardens, broken greenhouses, and demotivated and disillusioned prisoners either locked in their cells or aimlessly stuck on the wing with nothing meaningful to do.
While in some category C jails there were acute staffing difficulties, overall, there did not appear to be a correlation between staffing levels and levels of purposeful activity. HM Prison and Probation Service has worked hard to reduce the supply of drugs, with better gate security, use of dogs and technology, meaning the risk of a return to pre-pandemic levels of violence is lower. The challenge for governors, the prison service and ministers must be to increase significantly activities on offer while maintaining good levels of control and safety.
Elsewhere in the male estate, there were some encouraging inspections of reception prisons where we had previously been highly critical. Under strong leadership, Bedford and Liverpool were safer and more respectful than they had been in the past and we found promising if fragile progress in independent reviews of progress at Winchester, Chelmsford and Hull. Other historically risky prisons such as Leeds, Nottingham, Doncaster and Hewell also achieved improved safety scores. Staff working in reception prisons often told me that they felt safer than they had before the pandemic when the unstemmed flow of drugs resulted in exceptionally high levels of violence. Rates of violence, however, continued to be too high with assaults on staff a serious problem in many prisons.
The living conditions in reception prisons remained a serious cause of concern, despite some improvements, particularly in showers, where there had been considerable spending by the prison service. Many establishments were overcrowded, with prisoners sharing a small cell designed for one, with a poorly screened lavatory in the corner. In many cells we found insufficient ventilation or broken windowpanes that left prisoners cold in the winter. In the summer heatwaves, the top landings of some older prisons were stifling. With prison population figures only expected to increase, I will be monitoring the impact of overcrowding very closely, not least the effect it has on purposeful activity and time out of cell.
In these jails, prisoners continued to be locked in their cells for unacceptably long periods of time, with those who were not working or in education often only getting out for one or two hours a day. Prisoners frequently told me of the psychological effects of these long lock ups on a population with fragile mental health. Many were desperate to get into workshops or education, but insufficient staffing, combined with over-complicated and slow allocation processes, meant that they stayed stuck in their cells.
Our inspection of Exeter prison, which led to the issuing of a second, consecutive Urgent Notification, revealed some of the highest levels of self-harm in male comparator prisons and that 10 prisoners had taken their lives since our last full inspection in 2018. This was an example of what goes wrong when leadership is not consistent or of high quality; four governors, eight deputy governors and eight heads of safety had been in post since our 2018 inspection.
The proportion of those on remand remained above historic averages and we frequently reported on the disadvantages these prisoners faced. Ignored by the new unification of probation services contracts, remand prisoners received less support than before the changes. Newly remanded prisoners were lucky if they got help with tenancy arrangements or debt and in our thematic work, we came across some particularly concerning cases where women had been unable to make suitable arrangements before going into prison and had been burgled or had their identities stolen while they were on remand.
At the beginning of the year, many prison libraries inexplicably remained closed or maintained heavy restrictions on access. While we began to see improvements as the year went on, access had largely not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Staff shortages meant that gym sessions continued to be cancelled or the number of prisoners able to use the facilities was heavily reduced, adding to the frustrations of those in reception jails.
In recent years we have been more positive about the quality of health care, but I have begun to be concerned about some prisons, where a lack of staff or an over-reliance on agency workers is leading to reductions in service. Health services are often kept going by small, dedicated teams of professionals, but there is an emerging fragility about much of what we have seen this year, particularly the support for mental health problems.
Our joint thematic report with HM Inspectorate of Probation, published in November, highlighted many concerns with the offender management in custody (OMIC) model that was designed to improve the sharing of information and preparation for release. Key work with a named officer was supposed to be at the heart of the process, whereby prisoners were to be guided through their sentences and supported during their last months in prison to make the transfer back to the community.
Disappointingly, we only found effective key work in two prisons we inspected, while elsewhere it was piecemeal or tokenistic at best and was usually reserved for only the most vulnerable. Key work was disrupted or cancelled because of staff shortages, and few prisoners were getting the support for which it was designed. This was compounded by the often very reduced staff numbers that we found in offender management units, where staff were too often cross-deployed to work on the wings.
I remained concerned about the support for men serving lengthy or indeterminate sentences – including those imprisoned for public protection – to access programmes that enabled them to reduce their risk and so progress in their sentence plans. Aside from this group of men being in particular need of such interventions for public protection, feeling unable to make progress towards any kind of goal can seriously affect mental health and overall well-being.
Our inspections continued to show disparities between different groups that had not been analysed or addressed by prisons. Our thematic report into the experiences of black prisoners and black staff showed that there is a long way to go to make prisons fairer. We proposed practical solutions and suggestions to help break down the barriers, misunderstanding and lack of trust that exists, particularly between white staff and black prisoners, and we look forward to seeing progress in this area.
There continued to be fewer women in prison than before the pandemic, but low staffing levels in some jails meant that there were missed opportunities to make material improvements to the quality of provision. The mixed population in women’s prisons – between those on short sentences who are caught in the cycle of mental health difficulties, homelessness, substance misuse and offending, and those who are serving long sentences for serious offences – added to the complexity of these jails. These prisons require a team with very particular skills, knowledge and values who are able to engage, challenge and support the women in their care. We come across many outstanding staff in women’s prisons who demonstrate these qualities, and saw some excellent practice this year, particularly in specialist provision for women with personality disorders and some well-planned resettlement work for those approaching release. However, where there were shortages of staff, interactions could be transactional and cursory.
We continued to be very concerned about the treatment of women who were displaying the most extreme mental health difficulties, particularly those who prolifically self-harmed. Many of them should not have been in prison and in most cases, the wait to transfer to hospital remained much too long. Prison officers and other staff do not have enough expertise to care for women with very complex needs and a huge amount of prison resource is taken up by a small number of cases. In this report we highlight some very concerning practice at Eastwood Park and continuing difficulties at Foston Hall. Across the estate we continued to see women locked in their cells for too long and not enough opportunities to work, socialise or attend education. Given the lower risk that most women pose, there is no excuse for the poor outcomes in purposeful activity and a real drive from governors and the regional director is required to transform this situation.
In the women’s estate we hear lots of talk of ‘trauma-informed’ prisons, but those who use the term cannot always articulate what they mean by it. Staff and leaders will require more training and there needs to be a deep commitment to changing the culture if this concept is to become more than just a catchphrase in women’s prisons.
The children’s estate
The number of children in custody remained historically low, with a greater proportion than ever on remand. While there continued to be children serving short sentences, the proportion who had committed the most serious offences had grown and it was not unusual to come across children who were in the early stages of very long sentences. Levels of violence remained much too high in almost all of the young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres we inspected, with the exception of Parc YOI, which remained the safest and most productive institution. Elsewhere regimes continued to be limited; no other YOI got children out of their cells for longer than 6.5 hours a day, with even less time at weekends. The fear of violence had created a vicious circle that meant children were more likely to carry and use weapons, ostensibly for self-protection, but which predictably resulted in further incidents. Some children coming into custody could bring in conflict from outside, particularly when they were involved with gangs, but this was compounded by allocating them to small groups that had themselves taken on gang-like affiliation and behaviour. Attempts to get larger groups of children into education therefore led to increased conflict and the cancellation or restriction of activities.
YOIs have reverted to extensive and complicated ‘keep apart’ lists to prevent children in conflict with each other from mixing. While these seem expedient in the short-term, prisons that adopt this policy usually remain the most violent, and regimes inevitably are reduced because different groups have to be locked away before others can be let out. The boredom leads to children calling out to each other through windows or cell doors and creating further hostility. More focus on resolving conflict and motivating good behaviour is a much better solution to reducing violence.
Our inspections of immigration removal centres (IRCs) were fairly positive last year, with reasonable conditions and generally good staff-detainee relationships. The centres for men continued to be unnecessarily bleak, although there had been some good work to improve the situation for women, where environments tended to be better appointed and less prison-like. We were concerned that the number of detainees was rising and had left some of the centres feeling crowded with, at times, too few activity spaces. We continued to see detainees being held for too long, particularly those for whom there did not appear to be any chance of deportation taking place. Insufficient suitable community accommodation meant that some detainees with mental health difficulties remained in IRCs where there was a considerable risk that their condition would deteriorate. Our thematic report on immigration detainees held in prisons showed that they did not receive the same entitlements as those in IRCs. The Home Office continued to take too long to process cases, creating uncertainty and frustration for detainees and considerable cost to the taxpayer. We came across some improvements in engagement from Home Office staff in IRCs, but decisions about cases were still not being made quickly enough.
In the summer we inspected the new short-term holding facility at Manston and returned to those at Dover and Folkstone. We were pleased to see some improvements in the processing of detainees at Western Jet Foil, but we remained concerned about the treatment of families and individual children at the Kent Intake Unit, which was not a suitable environment for vulnerable groups. New facilities were due to open later in the year which should lead to improvements in care.
When we inspected Manston, the number of detainees was relatively low and most were being processed through the facility fairly quickly in conditions that were tolerable for short stays. We were, however, concerned about the quality of health care, which was inadequate for the needs of the population, and we were disappointed to see a failure to use interpreters (other than for asylum screening interviews) and to identify potential victims of torture or those with mental health difficulties. We raised concerns about the time that some detainees were spending at the site and when I visited in September, I found things had deteriorated.
By October we were hearing very concerning reports from credible sources that there was severe overcrowding and a failure by the Home Office to find suitable accommodation, so that detainees were therefore spending far too long at a site that is inadequate for anything more than a 24-hour stay. At that time, I announced that we would return to the site in the near future to assess what progress had been made.
The treatment of prisoners in court custody continued to be reasonably good and staff were generally supportive and kind to those in their care. Safeguarding arrangements were still not good enough in some courts and further training was required for all staff. We generally saw better partnership work between the agencies involved in court custody and more coordination of services. Conditions in court cells continued to be poor in some areas, with not enough for detainees to do to help them pass the time, but usually their basic needs were met by staff. We were concerned about the lack of prison places, leading to delays in transferring detainees from court custody because vans were not always available at the right time, particularly where there were shortages of drivers.
All of the services inspected by HMI Prisons in 2022–23 suffered from difficulties with recruiting and retaining enough staff. In some jails wings were closed and elsewhere there were simply not enough officers to run a regime. Shortages did not, however, just apply to officers, and in many prisons there were not enough trainers or teachers to run workshops; this resulted in cancellations and very limited purposeful activity. Some establishments struggled to recruit administration or operational support grade staff, and officers were sometimes taken away from the wings to fulfil these functions. Governors also complained that the inexperience of staff meant they were nervous about opening up regimes, but given the amount of time since the pandemic, this excuse was beginning to sound very thin.
It remains astonishing that prison governors play no part in the selection of officers who work in their prison and that some only meet new staff on their first day at work. Governors have frequently told me that they get new recruits who are not suitable for the role and the number who leave within the first year seems to support this assessment.
Some prisons are beginning to think creatively about how they can look after new and less experienced staff and with the current pressures this must remain a priority. It is too early to see the longer-term effects of recent pay rises, but it is clear that for many prisons, particularly in the south of England, this will continue to be a challenge. The prison service does not do enough to nurture and retain its most talented staff to help them to become the leaders of the future.
As ever, it is the quality of leadership that makes the most difference in all places of detention. One of the most valuable resources in our prisons is the best 20 or 30 governors who are visionary, dynamic, courageous and inspiring. If the prison service was able to make better use of their expertise, from both the public and private sectors, much more progress could be made. It continues to be far more hierarchical than other public services, with limits on autonomy at every level that stifle creativity and risk-taking.
In the next year I hope to see a significant improvement in the amount of time prisoners are spending in purposeful activity. The best governors have showed us what is possible; it is time for others to follow.
I continue to be enormously proud of my team at HMI Prisons; they are dedicated, passionate and determined and I am hugely grateful for their outstanding work in the last year. I know how much disruption and stress is caused when the Inspectorate arrives, and I want to thank prison and immigration leaders and staff for welcoming our input and engaging with the process. We are made universally welcome, despite the hard messages that we sometimes have to give.
Chief Inspector of Prisons
If you want to read the full report, follow the links