DESCRIPTION OF THE PRISON
HMP Altcourse is situated six miles north of Liverpool city centre and is set in an 80 acre site surrounded by woodlands.
The prison was purpose-built in 1997 under the government’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI) on a design, build and finance contract by Group 4 and key partner Tarmac. Group 4 (now G4S) holds a 25 year contract to operate and manage the prison.
HMP Altcourse opened for prisoners in December 1997. It is a Category B Local and Remand prison serving the courts of Cheshire, North Wales and Merseyside. Currently contracted for the provision of 1184 places, it is the designated prison for all the courts in North Wales from where approximately 30% of prisoners originate. It is currently designated a Resettlement Prison.
There are seven residential units, a Healthcare Unit, Sports Hall and a football pitch, Care and Separation Unit, Workshops and Vocational Training Units on site, together with a variety of facilities which support the daily routine of the prison. The site is well laid out and maintained and prisoners are trusted to move from unit to unit without escort and with minimal supervision wherever possible.
• Levels of violence and self-harm decreased between July 2017 and April 2018 although there was a brief spike in September when Altcourse became a smoke free establishment. The introduction of PAT (Pets as Therapy) dogs helped with the downward trend in self-harm. May saw a sharp upturn with 45 violent incidents recorded which fell to 35 in June. There were 109 instances of self-harm in June which was the highest number since October 2016. These included multiple incidents carried out by a small number of individuals.
• There were 3 deaths in custody during the reporting year. Two were apparently self-inflicted and one from natural causes. The Board was impressed by the support offered to staff, prisoners and next of kin affected by these deaths.
• The ACCT process has been reviewed resulting in an increase in assessors and key workers. There is a first night watch for all new admissions. Numbers of open ACCT books rose to 95 in May. There has been a reduction in incidents for those on an open ACCT reflecting the effectiveness of the system.
• Safer Altcourse and Use of Force meetings have been introduced weekly. The IMB are invited to attend. The former discusses prisoners of interest together with intensive intervention plans. The latter scrutinises any incidents which have required the use of force. This was considered a model of good practice by HMCIP.
• The Admissions area has been repainted, showers refurbished and there are two new interview rooms. Large posters display training and employment opportunities. A choice of microwave meals is available so prisoners are now able to have a hot meal on arrival. Peer supporters act as greeters. The new First Night leaflet gives clear practical information. Prisoners comment at IMB induction about the positive experience at Admissions.
• However, late arrivals from the courts and increased paperwork requirements for Healthcare have, at times, resulted in prisoners spending prolonged periods of time in Admissions. This peaked in the third week of April when it took between 5 to 8 hours to process new arrivals. Healthcare now allocate additional staff to carry out the initial screening.
• Bechers Green, the vulnerable prisoner (VP) unit, holds a challenging and demanding mix of offenders. When the unit is full VPs are housed elsewhere but are brought over for association. These prisoners have reported feelings of intimidation although we note that managers have identified and are addressing the underlying issues. • Overall prisoners tell us they feel safer at Altcourse than at other establishments.
• A new 20 bedded enhanced support unit (SEEDS) has opened targeted at prisoners who require an enhanced level of support. This can be due to learning disabilities, autism, those suffering from heightened levels of stress or trauma, or who have difficulty coping on normal location. The intention is to offer a range of therapeutic activities and ‘Manchester Survivors’ will provide an input, addressing issues of trauma. Four dedicated prisoner mentors have been identified and trained to work on the unit along with other specialist staff. The IMB welcomes this initiative.
• The prison has commissioned the services of ‘Manchester Survivors’ to offer a service to individuals and groups of prisoners who have experienced past trauma. The prison is also undertaking the use of PAT (Pets as Therapy) dogs for prisoners who are socially isolated, prolific self-harmers or who have mental health issues.
Drug Strategy & Security
• MDT failure rates have fluctuated but have exceeded the target of 12%. The use of psychoactive substances has dipped and cannabis has increased. The Security department continues to work to reduce the presence of illegal items.
• Prisoners are well supported by the Substance Misuse Team which offers a range of interventions and provides structure and support from the drug recovery and stabilisation units on Furlong. A Community Connector works with focused individuals and meets them on release.
• The prison now uses a paper scanner to detect the presence of illicit substances on incoming mail. The prison has also had the temporary use of a body scanner as part of a national trial. This has proved effective both in detection and as a deterrent.
The Report contained no stakeholder survey information, none was carried out, to validate the views of the Board.
Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook called the report ‘completely valueless’.
Mr Leech said: “The opinion of any Board that is allegedly independent, but whose members are nameless to the public, that is selected by and answerable only to the Ministry of Justice whose prisons they are in place to monitor, and in the absence of any stakeholder views to confirm or deny their conclusions, has to make for a completely valueless report that would have been better off not being written.
“No report is better than a valueless report.”
Mr Leech’s view on the IMB are well known and set out here.