Did prisoners take their lives because they could no longer face violent, drug-ridden jail? – Chief Inspector

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has asked whether prisoners in HMP & YOI Nottingham took their own lives because they could no longer face life in the violent, drug-ridden jail.

In one of the most disturbing inspection reports in recent years, Mr Clarke posed the question in relation to eight apparent self-inflicted deaths between inspections in February 2016 and January 2018, part of an “appalling and tragic” picture of suicide and self-harm in Nottingham.

The formal cause of death in those cases will be decided by inquests but Mr Clarke said: “For too long prisoners have been held in a dangerous, disrespectful, drug-ridden jail. My fear, which may prove to be unfounded, is that some could face it no longer and took their own lives.”

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) inspected the East Midlands jail in 2014. That was, like the vast majority of inspections, an unannounced visit. Safety then was assessed as poor, the lowest grade. The following inspections in 2016 and 2018 were, unusually, announced in advance. Despite this, safety was yet again found to have remained at a poor assessment. This spurred Mr Clarke to invoke the first ever use of a new ‘Urgent Notification’ protocol, which requires the Secretary of State for Justice, publicly, to take personal responsibility for improving a jail with significant problems. This centred on a “dramatic decline” at Nottingham and a “persistent and fundamental lack of safety”.

Mr Clarke said: “This prison will not become fit for purpose until it is made safe. It was clear from our evidence that many prisoners at Nottingham did not feel safe.” Inspectors identified disturbing findings:

  • Forty per cent of prisoners in the inspection survey said they felt unsafe on their first night in the jail; 67% that they had felt unsafe at some point during their stay; and 35% that they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. Well over half reported bullying or victimisation.
  • Reported violence had not reduced since 2016, with 103 assaults against staff in the six months before the inspection. In the same period, there were nearly 200 incidents of prisoners climbing on the safety netting between landings. Inspectors said the overall level of disorder “contributed to a tense atmosphere at the prison.”
  • Well over half of prisoners said drugs were easily available and 15% had acquired a drug problem since entering the prison.
  • Use of force by staff had increased considerably since 2016 with nearly 500 incidents in the six-month period prior to the inspection, yet governance and supervision of such interventions were weak.
  • Just under half of prisoners had mental health needs and a “very high” 25% – 116 prisoners – were under psychiatric care. A quarter of prisoners said they felt suicidal on arrival in Nottingham.
  • Levels of self-harm were far too high, with 344 occurrences recorded in the six months up to the inspection.

Not surprisingly, Mr Clarke said, “in a prison which could be defined by the prevalence of drugs and violence, the level of suicide and self-harm was both tragic and appalling. Since our previous visit, eight prisoners had taken their own lives, with four of these tragedies occurring over a four-week period during the autumn of 2017.  Just a few short weeks after this inspection, a ninth prisoner was believed to have taken his own life.

“We were concerned that some repeated criticisms related to these deaths made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) (which investigates prison deaths) had not been adequately addressed. For example, cell call bells were still not being answered promptly.”

Mr Clarke added: “We do not claim that the prison had been completely inactive in the face of these challenges. A new violence reduction strategy had been prepared in late 2017… However, this work was fitful and had yet to have an impact.” The prison also had a drug supply reduction policy, though it was not embedded and was not effective.

Inspectors also acknowledged an increase in staff numbers in recent months, though they noted that “too many staff were passive, lacked confidence in dealing with issues or in confronting poor behaviour, and prisoners did not yet see them as reliable or able to deal with the many daily frustrations they faced.”

Health care was reasonably good, and there were plans to improve mental health provision. Daily routines were more predictable and more activities were available for prisoners. There were also “some creditable efforts to prepare men for release”.

The prison governor assured inspectors they had understood the scale of the problems. Mr Clarke said: “I am hopeful that the Urgent Notification will galvanise Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to provide the support the prison needs to make it an acceptable environment in which to hold prisoners. If this is to happen, there will need to be levels of supervision, support and accountability that have been absent in the past.” The HMPPS action plan drawn in response to the Urgent Notification in January 2018 promised “much that is welcome in terms of review, audit and analysis. However, this must all be translated into tangible action to improve the day-to-day experience, safety and well-being of prisoners. Unless this happens, I fear that progress will be neither substantial nor sustainable.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This was yet again a very poor inspection at Nottingham that left me with no alternative but to bring matters directly to the attention of the Secretary of State by invoking the urgent notification procedure. The record of failure, as set out in this report, cannot be allowed to continue.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said:

“We published an immediate response to the Chief Inspector’s concerns on 14 February and have today published a comprehensive plan setting out the practical actions we are taking to improve conditions at HMP Nottingham. Drug testing has been increased, specialist staff are working with vulnerable prisoners and safety is the absolute priority for the Governor and staff every day. We have strengthened management arrangements, are providing external support and will monitor progress closely over the coming months.”

A copy of the full report, published on 16 May 2018, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at: www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons

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