Dear Peter,

I am writing to ask you as the Chief Inspector of Prisons to conduct a Thematic Review into Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) and the system generally of Independent Monitoring in our prisons.

Despite the plethora of Thematic Reviews conducted by the Prisons Inspectorate (HMIP) over the last 22 years, there has never been one that looked at how the effectiveness, or otherwise, of independent prison monitoring impacts on the treatment and conditions in which prisoners and prison staff live and work.

This is absolutely necessary now, and for a number of important reasons.

Firstly, with effect from November 1st 2018, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has introduced a new IMB governance structure. This is the first such governance change since Sir Peter Lloyd’s review in 2001.

Secondly, all inspections carried out by HMIP contribute to the UK’s response to its international obligations under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

As you know, but others who read this may not, OPCAT requires that all places of detention in the UK are visited “regularly by independent bodies” – overseen by what is known as the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) that monitors the treatment of and conditions for detainees.

HMIP is the lead of 21 bodies making up the NPM in the UK, and coordinates its joint activities; it must be right as the lead in this vital custodial area that you are able to examine how well the NPM, and those bodies which comprise it, actually live up to the standards that OPCAT requires of them.

HMIP has never done this.

How, as the lead body of the NPM in the UK, can HMIP be assured the NPM is operating as effectively as our obligations to the UN require it to be, if the Inspectorate only ever inspects others – but never examines itself?

Having discussed this with others professionally familiar with this field, I understand there may be a reluctance to examine IMBs because it is a political subject just too close to home; I get that.

But it can never be right in my view to draw jurisdictional lines on a purely defensive basis, and let me remind you of the words of General Sir (now Lord) David Ramsbotham, your predecessor as Chief Inspector of Prisons who wrote in 1996:

  •  “The aim of all inspections carried out by HMIP is to raise the operational standards of establishments… by a mixture of planned inspections, designed to examine a particular aspect or problem…. But, until recently, the Inspectorate has tended to keep quiet about wider issues, and to make only occasionally what Professor Rod Morgan has described as ‘lateral forays into policy’… If we are to be true to our aim, it seems to me that this is a pity, because we are not exploiting the collective wisdom, and experience, of the Inspectorate to the best advantage of the Prison Service as a whole.”

Is HMIP being true to its aim?

IMBs fulfil a vital supervisory role in our prisons; they hold the balance between the Governor and the internal management of the prison on one hand, and the prisoner and public on the other. Because HMIP cannot discharge its OPCAT obligations alone, having neither the time, staff or resources to do so, it relies in great part on IMBs plugging the ‘regular independent’ inspection gap HMIP is unable to fill.

As such, IMBs are a major part of the UK discharging its Treaty obligations under the NPM – and there is therefore not only a requirement for HMIP as the lead NPM body to examine IMB effectiveness but, as they are in effect your NPM ‘agents’ for whom HMIP has a responsibility, it has to be asked how HMIP can legitimately inspect others with a straight face, when it ignores what may be serious defects in its OPCAT monitoring because it never looks at itself?

How do the IMB as your main NPM agents measure up?

Here are some IMB questions that need to be asked and, ideally, answered. 


  • Stakeholders: IMBs have to submit an annual report on their prisons. There are many criticisms that can be made of these reports (I refer to one later relating to an horrendous death in custody) and while there are some brilliant examples there are also far too many that are not worth the paper they are written on; even taking up to a year after the end of the reporting period to see the public light of day.

However for present purposes it is enough to ask why HMIP does not insist IMBs include in their Annual Report a survey of prisoners in their establishment, to get the stakeholder view? After all this is something HMIP does in every single inspection report it publishes, recognising that one side of a story is only good until another side is told.

What is the real value of any ‘independent report’ without it?


  • Secrecy: We name the Head of MI5, yourself, all your staff, the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, all her staff, and yet the public who pay over £2m a year to operate the IMB are not allowed to know the name of a single member of any IMB despite the fact they each occupy statutory independent office.

The MOJ will tell you its due to personal security reasons but, come on, while that might have washed 25 years ago, how realistic is it in this day and age where the internet and social media provide hitherto unknown access to information?

And when challenged to provide an example of where an IMB member has been targeted at home as a result of their work, the MOJ declined to answer.

Has anyone ever examined the credibility of this reason for secrecy?


The IMB failure to include stakeholder views in their reports, giving rise to the belief that they do not consider such things important, and their secrecy from the public who pay for them, has inevitably led to the complete failure of confidence in their so-called independence.


  • Silence: Your commendable introduction last year of the Urgent Notification (UN) procedure has held Ministers to account publicly for prisons like never before, and it is to the great credit of Justice Secretary David Gauke that he agreed to it.

But the glaring defect is that the UN procedure doesn’t extend to IMBs.

IMBs are in and out of prisons every day, that’s a thousand times more frequently than HMIP with its on-average visit every three years; what sense does it make to lock IMBs out of this vital notification process?

Examination of the four UNs HMIP has issued in the last 12 months (with a fifth avoided by the skin of its teeth at Chelmsford two months ago), show the dire straits our prisons are in.

Further evidence if any was needed was published by the MOJ just two weeks ago and that show:

  • There were 325 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to September 2018, up 8% from the previous year, of these, 5 were homicides, up from 3 incidents in the previous year.
  • There were 87 self-inflicted deaths, up from 78 in the previous year, 4 of which occurred in the female estate, compared to 5 incidents in the previous 12 months.
  • Self-harm incidents continue to rise, reaching new record high In the 12 months to June 2018, there were 49,565 incidents of selfharm, up 20% from the previous year. The number of self-harming individuals increased by 10% to 12,142. Quarterly self-harm incidents rose by 13% to 13,662 incidents.
  • Assaults and serious assaults continue to rise, reaching record highs There were 32,559 assault incidents in the 12 months to June 2018, up 20% from the previous year.
  • In the 12 months to June 2018, there were 3,951 serious assaults, up 7% from the previous year. Both of these figures are the highest in the time series.
  • In the most recent quarter, assaults increased by 5% to 8,689 incidents. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults continue to rise, reaching record highs There were 23,448 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the 12 months to June 2018, up 19% from the previous year. Of these, 3,063 (13%) were serious assaults, an increase of 5% in the number of serious incidents from the previous year. Both figures are record highs. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults saw an increase of 6% in the latest quarter, with 6,283 incidents.
  • Assaults on staff continue to rise, reaching record highs. There were 9,485 assaults on staff in the 12 months to June 2018, up 27% from the previous year. While it is said there has been a change in how these incidents are recorded since April 2017 which may have contributed to the increase, the fact remains that of these, there were 947 were serious assaults on staff, up 19% from the previous year. In the latest quarter the number of assaults on staff increased by 4% to a new record high of 2,515 incidents.

Despite this, not one single IMB monitoring prisons to which these shocking figures relate, issued a single press release to the public warning them how their prison was in meltdown and the dangers to their loved ones who both lived and worked in the prison that it represented.

Do the public seriously have to wait until the jail has reached such depths of despair that you have to act before they are made aware of it; or should IMBs be able to publicly issue (like you are) an UN that the prison is creaking, long before it then actually croaks?


  • Deaths in Prison: There were 325 deaths in prison custody in the 12 months to September 2018 – do you know how many press releases announcing a death in their custody IMBs issued in that period?

Zero. Zilch. None.

The centre of a Polo Mint to be exact.


This is severely aggravated by the fact that the MOJ categorically refuse to announce any death in custody until journalists like myself find out about them and ask.

Can it be right that when a person dies in the custody of the State, whose care has been entrusted to it by the courts, that the public should have to find out another person has died in jail in this seemingly concealed and grubby way?

Of course, it goes without saying that no names of the deceased need be given until the next of kin has been informed, or the circumstances of the death until any criminal investigation is complete either.

But if IMBs were to practice the independence they so often trumpet, and issue a basic notice of death in their custody to alert the public, that would be the action of an independent body taking its independence seriously, wouldn’t it?

Well that is not the IMB that we have and which, so far as OPCAT and the NPM are concerned, are your agents.

And while we are on this subject, forget the fact IMBs do not issue basic notices of deaths in custody; why doesn’t HMIP do it either?

If, in the name of a previous HMIP Thematic Review, “Suicide is everyone’s concern” why doesn’t HMIP translate its own words into practice?


  • Night Visits: In the early hours of 2 August 2008 Colin Bell, 34, was in a high security prison on a heightened suicide watch, in a CCTV-covered cell, when he was found dead slumped against his cell door.

Later examination of the CCTV showed Mr Bell had actually made four unnoticed suicide attempts in the 90 minutes before his death and, while he was making these attempts to end his life, the officer who was supposed to be monitoring the CCTV was seen watching television, eating, laughing with colleagues and then ultimately seen trying to sleep on a rolled-out mattress.

Not only did the IMB at this prison not issue a basic notice of death in custody but, worse, they then airbrushed any mention of it out of their subsequent annual reports completely; it was as if, according to the IMB account, it simply never happened.

Following inquiries into Mr Bell’s death the IMB did agree to carry out night visits to the prison – but only after giving the Governor 24 hours written notice of their intended arrival.


Today the IMB operate under a National Framework Agreement, agreed with the MOJ and which, when read, actually seeks to curtail their independence far more than it ever promotes it. However it too makes the point that care of the vulnerable in a prison must be a point of focus for all boards.

“Usually, an important element of monitoring the ‘general state of the establishment’ involves assessing the atmosphere where prisoners or detainees are accommodated and collecting evidence about the quality of life that they experience. The care taken of prisoners or detainees with open ACCT or ACDT documents or under a constant watch will also be things most IMBs want to monitor routinely.” 

Over half a century ago now, in 1964, Parliament enacted the Prison Rules in which they invested IMBs with the legal right to have access to the prison at any time, day or night. While IMBs regularly visit prisons during working hours and early evening, it is impossible to obtain details of how many such visits – despite the case of Colin Bell – ever take place at night.

The large weight of anecdotal evidence suggests that not only are night visits by IMBs few and far between, but shockingly that Boards are being actively dissuaded from making night visits to the prison, by the prison’s management itself.

Faith Spear, the former Chair of the IMB at HMP Hollesley Bay (who was later sacked for whistleblowing) revealed Boards are not encouraged to visit the prison at night:

  • “[I’m asked] why we never do night visits, even though we have the legal powers to do so. I believe that like many Boards we never do unannounced visits at night because we use the excuse that there is only a skeleton staff on duty and if anything happened, if an incident occurred I would be concerned that I would be held responsible for the disturbance. In truth however we do not do them because we know it would be frowned upon. The only way to be in the prison during the night would be to accompany the Governor, but how independent would that be?”

How independent indeed?

I could go on but will forebear to do so for the sake of brevity.


The weight of evidence shows that, in relying on IMBs to plug the OPCAT requirement for ‘regular independent’ visits to places of detention, HMIP has relied far too much on a defective body of people it has never examined, cares not to question, and yet about whom the most serious criticisms are constantly raised and seemingly ignored.

That failure to look inwards at the IMB, if it persists, will call into question the independence of the Prisons Inspectorate itself; if HMIP applies professional standards to inspect others, its hypocrisy not to apply those same standards to look at itself.

In principle and practice, a Thematic Review of independent monitoring in our prisons has never been more necessary or timely.

Will you do so?

Yours ever,

Mark Leech

Editor: The Prisons Handbook