First of the new HMI ‘Independent Review of Progress’ Reports shows “Too Little Too Late” at HMP Exeter

“A thoroughly depressing report”
Mark Leech, Editor:  The Prisons Handbook
for England and Wales

Work to address key failings at HMP Exeter, a troubled prison found last year to suffer high levels of drug-fuelled violence, has lacked urgency, according to HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In the first of its new ‘Independent Reviews of Progress’ (IRPs) – in Exeter in April 2019 – HMIP tested progress against key recommendations from a full inspection in May last year. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, was so concerned by the conditions in Exeter at that time that he issued a rarely-used ‘Urgent Notification’ requiring the Secretary of State to respond with plans for improvement within 28 days.

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The IRP visit presented a mixed picture. One of the most troubling findings was ‘no meaningful progress’ in understanding the factors underlying high levels of illicit drug use.

Mr Clarke said that while there had been progress on some aspects, “the lack of progress in over half the 13 recommendations that we reviewed could be characterised by the statement ‘too little too late’.

“The purpose of the Urgent Notification Protocol, which is only used where I have serious concerns about the treatment of and conditions for prisoners, is to initiate immediate remedial action.

“At Exeter, in too many critical areas, this simply had not happened. It was not clear whether this was as a result of a conscious decision not to prioritise our recommendations, bureaucratic inertia, or whether managers were simply overwhelmed or uncertain as to how to set about making the much-needed improvements. 

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“Whatever the reason, there had not been a sufficient sense of urgency in the prison’s response to a number of key recommendations.”

In the May 2018 inspection, inspectors found there had been six self-inflicted deaths between 2016 and 2018 and self-harm had risen by 40%. Despite these levels of vulnerability, self-harm and suicide, cell call bells were routinely ignored by staff. The rate of assaults between prisoners was then the highest inspectors had seen in a local prison in recent years.

In April 2019, the IRP found that overall levels of violence had decreased, though they remained higher than in similar prisons. Mr Clarke said: “A number of actions had been taken to reduce violence and the strategy to reduce violence further in the future was promising.” The use of unregulated segregation had been eradicated, and governance of the use of force by staff was improving.

“However, despite a rise in the already high use of illicit drugs in the establishment, there had been an inexplicable failure to develop a comprehensive drug strategy which, if properly implemented, would certainly contribute to a reduction in violence. A draft strategy was being put together and it is essential that this is now treated as a priority.”

Relationships between staff and prisoners were found to be improving and improvement processes were in place to monitor cell bell responses. There was progress on prisoner applications and complaints, though equality and diversity work had not been prioritised at all. Similarly, attendance at education and work, some of which remained mundane, had not been prioritised.

Mr Clarke said that after the Urgent Notification the prison was required to produce an action plan for the Secretary of State but a number of the deadlines in this plan had not been met on time.

“Nevertheless, there had been a proactive response to some recommendations in critical areas and there are now credible plans to make further improvements in the future. It is unfortunate that the prison had not devised and implemented some of these plans earlier as they would no doubt have led to a more positive assessment at this review of progress.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales called the report ‘thoroughly depressing’.

Mr Leech said: “We all had high hopes that the Urgent Notification process would lead to real and lasting improvements in those prisons which have been subject to it – HMP Exeter was the first such prison to benefit from a post Urgent Notification IRP and this review of progress is a thoroughly depressing report that demonstrates that not even the Justice Secretary’s public undertakings of progress can be relied upon.”

The report is available here:

HMP Exeter: A Prison In Decline Due To Staff Shortages

exeter_prisonThere were not enough staff at HMP Exeter and safety had declined, as had work to rehabilitate prisoners, said Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Current staff should, however, be praised for their efforts, he added. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the local prison in Devon.

HMP Exeter held 490 adults and young adult prisoners at the time of its inspection. It was previously inspected in 2013. This more recent inspection found a clear decline in safety, in work to reduce reoffending and manage offenders through their sentence, and in the provision of health care. The biggest challenge facing the prison was that at the time of the inspection there were insufficient staff to run a predictable daily regime. The situation was apparently exacerbated by the long recruitment process for new staff. Inspectors considered whether the management team could have done more to mitigate the impact of staff shortages, and although there were some issues that could be addressed, it was difficult to see how outcomes could have been significantly better given the staffing shortfalls.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • the number of violent incidents was far higher than at other local prisons and than at the time of the previous inspection;
  • too many prisoners felt unsafe;
  • there had been 10 self-inflicted deaths since the previous inspection and there was another suspected self-inflicted death shortly after the inspection;
  • there were high levels of self-harm and serious concerns about some aspects of health care provision;
  • prisoners spent too much time locked in their cells and too few managed to take part in work, training or education, as the daily routine was often curtailed; and
  • there were real weaknesses in offender management, and work to help prisoners resettle back into the community, despite some good aspects, was undermined by staff changes and staff shortages.

However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • the management team were leading staff to deliver a service under challenging circumstances;
  • relationships between staff and prisoners were good;
  • the substance misuse service was very good and services for the many prisoners with mental health problems were good;
  • the management of learning and skills was good and the prison provided enough activity places for the population, but they were not fully used and too many sessions were cancelled; and
  • plans to help prisoners resettle back into the community were generally detailed, and some provision was good.

Peter Clarke said:

“If the shortage of staff provided the backdrop to difficulties at HMP Exeter, the foreground was filled by the challenges of drugs, violence and prisoners suffering from mental health issues. These were, of course, intertwined, and each in their own way was exacerbated by the impact of staff shortages.

“Despite all these difficulties, prisoners told us that the staff treated them with respect and it was clear that the relationship between prisoners and staff was fundamentally sound. It was to the enormous credit of senior managers and staff alike that they were persisting in their determination to do what they could to provide a decent environment for the men in their care.

“However, there was a real and troubling concern that the situation at HMP Exeter was fragile. Outcomes for prisoners had declined markedly since the previous inspection. Unless the regime could be improved, violence reduced, and the prevalence of drugs and other contraband addressed, further declines would be almost inevitable.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, said:

“We recognise that the prison needs more staff to deal with the problem of drugs, to improve safety and to provide more purposeful activity for prisoners. The Government have provided additional funding to increase staffing levels – and good progress is already being made to recruit new officers.

“The Chief Inspector has highlighted the dedication of managers and staff at HMP Exeter who have been working hard to provide a decent regime despite considerable operational pressures. I’m confident that together with these extra resources the Governor will be able to fully address the recommendations in this report and significantly improve the performance of the prison.”

A copy of the full report, published on 1 February, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at:

Smoking ban to come into effect in prisons

prisoner-smokingSmoking will be banned in all prisons in Wales and four in south-west England from next year, the government has said.

It is the first stage of a plan to make all jails in England and Wales smoke-free.

And from next month, smoking will be barred in the interior of all “open” prisons in England and Wales.

Earlier this year, the Prison Governors Association said a smoking ban risked making jails more unstable.

Its new president, Andrea Albutt, said tobacco could become an illicit currency.

A smoke-free policy will be implemented in all prisons in Wales – Cardiff, Parc, Swansea and Usk/Prescoed – from January 2016, and at four English prisons – Exeter, Channings Wood, Dartmoor and Erlestoke – from March 2016.