The first 24 hours in prison
HM Inspectorates of Prisons recently (26 November 2015) published one of their “findings papers”; a series of reports about life in prison, focusing on The First 24 hours in prison.
The paper draws on evidence from inspections of local prisons, including survey data and comments from confidential prisoner surveys in the financial year 2014/15.
Over 100,000 people per year enter prison for the first time; a daunting experience for most.
In the first few days of imprisonment, prisoners are particularly vulnerable and the risk of suicide is high during this time. Figures released by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) state that 10% of the self-inflicted deaths he investigated between 2007 and 2013 had taken place during an individual’s first three days in custody.
Prior to arriving at a prison, prisoners have been detained in a court, often for a long period in conditions recently strongly criticised by inspectors. They are then taken to prison in an escort van; another recent (2014) inspectors’ report criticised the safety and decency of some escort arrangements.
The entry process
The paper provides a flow chart showing an individual’s typical first experiences in prison:
The paper sets out inspectors’ expectations of how new arrivals are treated:
At all adult prisons, our expectations are that:
- Prisoners feel and are safe on their reception into prison and for the first few days in custody
- Prisoners are treated with respect on arrival at the prison
- Prisoners know what will happen next and the sources of help that are available
- Prisoners are fully supported on arrival and during their early days in prison
- Officers ensure that individuals’ needs or immediate anxieties are addressed before they are locked away for the night.
Our new expectations for women prisoners recognise their specific needs and include the following additional expectations:
- The safety of women’s children and other dependents is assessed and safeguarded
- Women’s needs are accurately assessed on arrival and timely action is taken to address them. Officers ensure that individuals’ needs or immediate anxieties are addressed before they are locked away for the night.
The inspectors’ paper then reports on how far these expectations are met; examining three distinct areas: the prisoner’s experience in reception, the prisoner’s experience on their first night at the prison and the support available to prisoners during their first 24 hours in an establishment.
These are the inspectors’ main findings of prisoners’ experience of reception:
- Even after what were frequently long waits in escort vans outside the prison, only 40% of men at local prisons told us that they had been in reception for less than two hours; with some prisoners telling of spending 8-9 hours in reception.
- The physical conditions of the reception area ranged from very good (Eastwood Park) to “austere and dingy” (Wormwood Scrubs).
- 62% male prisoners and 81% female prisoners said they were treated well or very well in reception.
- Although 79% of men and 91% of women at local prisons told inspectors that they were searched in a respectful way in reception, many were routinely strip-searched with no supporting intelligence – even if they were coming from another custody setting.
- Prisoners often did not receive their entitlements, the table below is an aggregate from all inspections of local prisons:
First night in prison
Most prisons have a dedicated first night centre or induction wing where new arrivals are placed, with a separate unit for vulnerable prisoners. The inspectors found that:
Too often first night cells were dirty and unprepared for new arrivals, with some containing offensive graffiti and insufficient bedding and equipment. However, in some prisons new arrivals are placed in the best accommodation, with a separate shower and toilet attached to the cell.
73% men and 75% women said that they felt safe on their first night at the prison.
Risk assessments – to identify vulnerable prisoners – tended to be done better at women’s prisons than men’s.
Support in the first 24 hours
As shown in the table below, inspectors found that many prisoners at both men and women’s local prisons were likely to report having problems when they first arrived. Although women reported having more problems when they arrived at the prison, they were also much more likely to receive help from staff in dealing with them.
On arrival at prison, most people want to be able to talk to family and friends but inspectors found that a third of men and a quarter of women had difficulties in being able to use a phone.
Only a minority of prisoners were able to access support from a Listener (a prisoner trained by the Samaritans to provide confidential emotional support to other prisoners) or peer mentor, but those who did found the support very valuable.
Perhaps the most important recommendation made by the inspectors in this report is one that should be relatively easy to ensure:
Staff should give new prisoners clear and accurate information to help them understand what is going to happen to them.
Surely this is not too much to ask?