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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Are our prisons systematically failing?

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Chief Prison Inspector Peter Clarke questions whether HMPPS is up to the job of turning round our failing prisons.

One of the main attributes of an effective Chief Inspector of Prisons is the willingness to stand up and be counted and make any criticisms clear and unequivocal. It is apparent that Peter Clarke is the right man for the job.

In yesterday’s inspection report on HMP Lewes, Mr Clarke not only highlights that establishment’s serious shortcomings but calls into question the ability of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to do its job.

Lewes prison was last inspected in January 2016, when inspectors found it to be reasonably good in terms of two of its main performance areas of “respect” and “resettlement” but not good enough in terms of the two others: “safety” and “purposeful activity”. When the inspectors went back this January they found that there had been a drop in performance in three key performance areas – respect, purposeful activity, and resettlement and in the fourth key area of safety, performance was deteriorating rapidly.

However, the thing that has so upset the Chief Inspector is the fact that Lewes has declined so markedly despite the fact that HMPPS put the prison into “special measures” in 2017. The “special measures” process involves very close oversight from HMPPS and an urgent action plan which highlights specific areas to be addressed.

Mr Clarke examined the ‘Improving Lewes (Special Measures) Action Plan’ agreed with senior HMPPS management in August 2018 and was far from impressed. There were 45 action points in the plan, but Mr Clarke found that 39 of these had not been completed, with the majority described as requiring “major development”. In particular, the Chief Inspector was irked by the fact that although there were more than 50 references to reviewing the action points, there was “a noticeable dearth of hard targets”.

Mr Clarke could not have been more candid about his view of this situation:

The results of this inspection clearly showed that, far from delivering better outcomes, two years of ‘special measures’ had coincided with a serious decline in performance.

Indeed, he went further, suggesting that this lack of impact of special measures suggested a systemic failure within the prison service. When it took the government more than a week to appoint a new Prisons and Probation Minister earlier this month, several commentators expressed the view that perhaps this was because nobody wanted the job. Today’s inspection report suggests there may be a grain of truth in this view. (For my profile of Robert Buckland, the new Minister, click here.)

Mr Clarke warned that unless HMP Lewes had strong leadership and a realistic action plan focused on delivering clear, measurable outcomes, it was highly likely that the use of the HMI Prisons Urgent Notification (UN) procedure would have to be considered. The UN procedure is reserved for prisons where the Chief Inspector finds “significant concerns with regard to the treatment and conditions of prisoners”. Since its introduction last year, it has only been used three times – for Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham prisons. Indeed, things were so bad at HMP Birmingham that the contract was taken away from the private operator G4S and returned to the public sector. Today’s inspection report suggests that this is no guarantee of improved performance.

Here is a bit more information on what the Inspectors found at HMP Lewes:

  • Safety – Since the last inspection there had been five self-inflicted deaths, and incidents of self-harm had tripled but there had been an inadequate response to recommendations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO). While levels of violence were broadly similar to 2016, assaults against staff had risen and a quarter of prisoners felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. One fifth of assaults were serious. Illicit drugs undoubtedly sat behind much of the violence. Despite this, devices to detect contraband and drugs had not been working since April 2018. Mr Clarke said: “I was told this was because of ‘procurement’ difficulties. If ‘special measures’ was intended to help the prison overcome this type of bureaucratic obstacle, it had failed.”
  • Respect – Seventy-eight per cent of prisoners said staff treated them with respect and the atmosphere was reasonably calm. “This was an unusually high figure for this type of prison, and added weight to the notion that the problems at Lewes were not insoluble, but did require significant management intervention.” There were “very real weaknesses” in health care in the prison.
  • Purposeful activity – Ofsted inspectors found “no clear strategy” for the delivery of learning and skills, and allocation to activities appeared to be a matter of luck. While time out of cell was good for those attending activities, it was not so good for those not attending, and inspectors found 40% of prisoners locked in their cells during the working day.
  • Rehabilitation and release planning – A lack of leadership meant that there was weak strategic management, and the reducing reoffending strategy was out of date.

By all accounts, Mr Buckland was very happy in his previous role as Solicitor General, today’s report might make him question whether he should have accepted his sideways move to the Ministry of Justice.

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