HMP Brixton: ‘Transformational’ report reveals ‘bold’ steps taken to reduce drugs and violence

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has commended HMP Brixton for concerted and successful work to reduce drug use and violence, including a “bold” decision to reduce release on temporary licence because this was being used to smuggle drugs in.

Notable features from this inspection

  • The prison was 200 years old and much of the accommodation was in poor condition.
  • 60% of cells held more prisoners than they were designed for.
  • There had been no self-inflicted deaths since the previous inspection.
  • 52% of the population were black or from a minority ethnic background.
  • 29% of the population were held because of a sexual offence.
  • The prison did not run any accredited offending behaviour programmes.

Peter Clarke said inspectors, who visited the 200-year-old prison in south London in March 2019, found “that with focused leadership, some bold decision-making and a highly committed staff group, much can be achieved even in the most challenging of circumstances.”

In January 2017, inspectors had assessed the prison as fundamentally unsafe, with the lowest judgement of ‘poor’ for both safety and purposeful activity. Respect was ‘not sufficiently good’ and resettlement was ‘reasonably good’.

By 2019, Brixton had many new staff and a cohort of prisoners that had changed in nature, including a larger number of sex offenders. Though the assessment of rehabilitation and release planning had fallen, other areas had improved.

“It is no exaggeration to say that… there has been a transformation in some key areas of the prison’s performance”

“The key to much of what has happened is, in my view, to be found in the determined, pragmatic and bold approach taken to dealing with the problem of illicit drugs which had been dominating prison life and driving very high levels of violence.” Two years ago, some 50% of prisoners said it was easy to get hold of drugs. That figure has now reduced to 30%.

“It is no exaggeration to say that… there has been a transformation in some key areas of the prison’s performance”, Mr Clarke said.

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This dramatic improvement had not come about by chance. Brixton had introduced the scanning of post for drug-impregnated paper, put up security netting and responded in a timely way to intelligence reports.

“In addition, the prison was faced with the question of how to respond to very clear intelligence that prisoners released on temporary licence were being pressurised to bring drugs back into the prison, usually concealed within their body and therefore undetectable by the technology available to the establishment.

“The decision was taken to stop the use of release on temporary licence (ROTL), and the evidence shows that this clearly had a huge impact on the availability of drugs.

“This was obviously a very serious step to take, and there was some concern that HM Inspectorate of Prisons would criticise the decision. On the contrary, my view is that this was precisely the type of bold, strategic decision that senior management needed to take.” He urged the prison, though, to keep the policy under review, to ensure it was proportionate.

The improvement in performance against illicit drugs had unsurprisingly been followed by a decrease in violence. “When one considers the overall trends in prisons in recent times, this was a remarkable achievement for a prison such as Brixton. The whole atmosphere within the prison had changed, and was far more relaxed and constructive than in the past,” Mr Clarke said.

“As an indication of how the staff were fully behind what had happened, we were told that in the space of two years, staff sickness levels had dropped from 25% to 4.6%.” Staff used force less often than in comparable prisons.

Inspectors, however, found that many challenges remained. Too many prisoners lived in overcrowded cells that were much too small. Many prisoners had a reasonable amount of time unlocked, but some had a very poor regime.

Ofsted inspectors judged that there had been significant improvement in the provision of education, skills and learning but there was still much to do. “It must become a priority to give sex offenders proper access to training and meaningful work, and access to interventions that can help them address their offending behaviour,” Mr Clarke said.

“It would be quite wrong if a perception were to be allowed to take hold that large numbers of sex offenders had been moved to Brixton to stabilise the prison (whether or not this was the case) and that the prison had then failed to meet their particular needs and risks.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said,

“This was a heartening inspection of what has traditionally been a very difficult prison to run well… Brixton will always be a difficult prison to keep safe, decent and purposeful. My hope is that the progress of the past two years does not turn out to be a temporary blip, and that the improvements we saw can be sustained into the future.”

Phil Copple, Director General of Prisons, said:

“This is an encouraging report to read, demonstrating that a challenging prison like Brixton can be made much safer with hard work, good leadership and the extra staffing in which we have invested. Staff and management are doing a commendable job and I’m pleased that inspectors credit them with this transformation. They are already focused on addressing the inspectors’ remaining concerns – for instance, by looking into ways to secure more work placements for offenders.”

Mark Leech,  Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales writes:

This is a remarkable report.

Two years ago many people wrote off Brixton Prison as a jail incapable of being turned around – this report shows what can be done with the right managers, doing the right things, in the right way, with the right staff.

Yes there are still improvements to be made at Brixton, the fabric of the prison is very poor, but this is a 200 year old jail –  prison Governors are Managers not Magicians, this is Brixton not Hogwarts.

Lamentably, the wording of the report that implies there has been a ban on ROTL at Brixton is at best ambiguous and at worst misleading.

There is no ROTL ban at Brixton – the population changed, with the Category D prisoners being moved to different prisons; the Chief Inspector did not make this at all clear.

The necessity to stem the flow of drugs into prisons is a point well made and the solution is to equip all prisons, not just Brixton, with airport-style body scanners that would enable prisons to deliver ROTL, helping to maintain family ties, aid employment and accommodation, test trust, and reduce reoffending – while at the same time being assured that when prisoners return, the prison has in place a security system that detects any contraband they possess.

Prison Facts:

HMP Brixton is a category C men’s resettlement prison situated in the heart of south London.

This year marks 200 years since it opened. At the time of this latest inspection, it held around 740 prisoners, of whom more than 200 were sex offenders.

HMP Brixton opened in 1819 as the Surrey House of Correction. It was subsequently a prison for women and later a military prison. In 1898, it was turned into an adult male local prison, serving London, particularly south London.

In July 2012, it became a category C and D resettlement prison for the local area. In February 2017, the role of the prison changed to a category C-only resettlement prison.

Read the Report