Chief Prison Inspector Charlie Taylor took the opportunity presented by the publication of his annual report today (5 July 2023) to take the prison system to task for continuing to operate greatly reduced regimes in so many prisons despite the final COVID restrictions being lifted in May 2022. He questioned how people could be rehabilitated without access to education, training and work opportunities.
Mr Taylor shared the litany of justifications given for this situation, including insufficient prison officer numbers, inexperience of staff, industrial relations, overcrowding, and poor delivery by prison education providers. He also said that inspectors visited some prisons who were clearly nervous that opening the regime would lead to levels of violence that prisons had experienced before the pandemic. However, he is clear that much of the failure must come down to a lack of leadership within both prisons and the prison service.
Mr Taylor highlighted examples where strong leadership had made a difference citing Coldingley & Channings Wood where “there was drive and momentum to get back to pre-pandemic levels of activity”. The Chief Inspector was particularly concerned at low levels of activity in Category C training and/or resettlement prisoners:
“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.”
Other key findings
Some of the other key findings the Chief Inspector drew attention to in his foreword included:
- Improvements around safety in many reception prisons.
- Concerns over the living conditions in reception prisons.
- A lack of helping services for the very high proportion of remand prisoners
- Access to libraries and gyms much reduced
- An over-reliance on agency staff for many prison healthcare teams and concerns around support for mental health problems.
- Effective key work in only two of the 39 prisons inspected (see my summary of the Offender Management in Custody inspection report)
- Concerns around persistent racial disparity and the experiences of black prisoners (and black staff)
The annual report says that inspectors came across many outstanding staff in women’s prisons 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.
Mr Taylor expressed his continuing concern about the treatment of women who were displaying the most extreme mental health difficulties, particularly those who prolifically self-harmed. He is clear that many of them should not have been in prison and in most cases, the wait to transfer to hospital remained much too long.
Interestingly, he also noted that although many managers and staff at women’s establishments talked about “trauma-informed” prisons, “those who use the term cannot always articulate what they mean by it”.
The infographic below shows the outcomes for the four key areas inspected at the 37 male prisons and YOIs who were inspected in the last year. As you can see, institutions were rated particularly poorly on purposeful activity and rehabilitation & release planning.
The children’s estate
While the number of children in custody still remain low (although rising), there is a greater proportion of children both on remand and serving very long sentences. Overall, the Chief Inspector was not impressed, saying that levels of violence remained much too high in almost all of the young offender institutions and secure training centres 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.
Mr Taylor talks about staff shortages and the growing proportion of inexperienced staff at length. He notes that Governors often complain of getting unsuitable new recruits who leave within the first year.
He also talks about leadership:
“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.”
Mr Taylor concludes by saying he expects to see a significant improvement in the amount of time prisoners are spending in purposeful activity in the coming year.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here
You can see the official video summary of the 2022/23 HMI Prisons annual report below: