IMB National Annual Report – Prisons in ‘fragile recovery’

The prison system is in a state of ‘fragile recovery’ after a lengthy period of staffing problems, increases in drugs and violence, and inadequate rehabilitation opportunities, said in their national annual report summarising the findings of prison independent monitoring boards in England and Wales to the end of 2018.

In the report, Dame Anne Owers, National Chair of the IMBs, highlights:

• the damage to regimes caused by insufficient staff, and then the risks resulting from a high proportion of new and inexperienced staff
• the impact of new psychoactive substances on prison safety, with a rise in violence and self-harm
• continuing failings in prison maintenance contracts, with crumbling infrastructure and sometimes degrading conditions
• the over-use of segregation for prisoners with serious mental health concerns or risks of self-harm
• the long-standing inability to manage prisoners’ property effectively; and
• the shortcomings of community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) and housing and benefits problems that undermine successful resettlement.

Dame Anne said that some new initiatives were showing signs of promise, but that it was too early to say whether they would have a sustained impact on outcomes for prisoners. They include:

• staff recruitment drives
• management focus on decent conditions
• the new drug strategy and measures to prevent the entry of drugs
• the roll-out of offender management in custody; and
• revised processes for supporting prisoners at risk of self-harm and reducing violence.

Boards will continue to monitor the impact of these changes.

The report also raised significant concerns about the number of prisoners with serious mental health conditions, or at risk of self-harm, being held for lengthy periods in segregation units, where their condition deteriorates. It points to the need for more appropriate alternative provision, particularly in NHS facilities.

Dame Anne said: “There is no question that IMBs are still reporting some serious and ongoing problems in prisons. The decline in safety, conditions and purposeful activity in prisons over the last few years has seriously hampered their ability to rehabilitate prisoners.

“This will take time to reverse, and will require consistent leadership and management both in the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice, as new staff, policies and resources bed in.

“This report provides a benchmark against which we will be able to judge progress. IMBs will continue to monitor and report on the new initiatives now being rolled out and their impact on the ground on the conditions and treatment of prisoners and the ability of prisons to turn lives round.”

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

Overall I think this is a really balanced report, it sets out clearly the progress that has been made across the estate, but doesn’t shy away from highlighting the major problems that it still faces, according at least to annual reports from individual Boards.

That said, the IMB as a national organisation, is still in need of root and branch reform. Too many Boards are cloaked in total darkness from the public who pay upwards of £2m a year to cover their expenses, or the prisoners in the establishments that they Monitor.

In 2019, is it still acceptable that we can know the name of the Head of MI5, but not the name of any IMB Member – that is what the Secretary of State has ruled, he claims for ‘personal safety reasons’?

If the IMB are to be taken seriously, and let’s not forget they are a statutory independent body, then they need to come from behind their cloak of secrecy and into the light of day, where they can be questioned and challenged on what they report or, more frequently, on what they help to conceal.

Read the Report

Knock down Pentonville and start again say IMB



Knock down Pentonville and start again, or urgently upgrade the decrepit, 174 year-old building if the new threats plaguing prisons up and down the land – ‘Spice’ and drones – are to be tackled.

That’s the stark message being delivered to the new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, by the Victorian prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).

Staff routinely intercept parcels being thrown over walls, but criminal gangs have successfully exploited the shoddy state of the prison’s windows by sending small, near-silent drones – which can be steered to window sills – with payloads of drugs, mobile phones, and other contraband, according to the Annual Report, published today.

Members of the board report seeing prisoners collapse after taking Spice (also known as New Psychoactive Substances) prompting prison officers and teams of healthcare staff to rush to their aid.

The report says: “Spice is driving a whole illicit economy, violence, self-harm and bullying. Pentonville’s security team works with the police and use drugs dogs to make every effort to stop Spice and other contraband getting in. But it is like holding a hand up against the incoming tide, when dilapidated windows in this ancient building make most parts of it porous.”

The report calls for the windows on the most exposed aspects of the prison to be replaced immediately while pointing out that plans to do so have been in place for two years: “Only 10 windows have been replaced.  And not 10 of the worst because the glazing units were the wrong size. 100 more are supposed to follow.  Everyone is waiting.”

Outsourced procurement and buildings maintenance firm Carillion have repeatedly failed to respond on time to jobs, according to the board, leaving cells out of action for days; chronic shortages of basic kit (towels, toothbrushes and soap); and a lift for wheelchair access to the visits hall out of action for 6 months.

“This is distressing for prisoners and families and frustrating for staff. The Board doubt that a problem with wheelchair access to the Ministry of Justice would be allowed to languish for 6 months.”

The North London prison’s population – of about 1290 inmates, including 120 Young Adults and 300 foreign nationals – has 40% more prisoners than the Prison Service’s own measure of ‘uncrowded capacity’.

Overcrowding coupled with a shortage of prison officers regularly leads to ‘temporary regimes’ in which safe staff-prisoner ratios can only be achieved by confining inmates to their cells. This means prisoners can’t get to basic education, vocational workshops or the library. So while board members welcome efforts to increase provision for such ‘purposeful activity’ – they note that library visits are down and educational attendance rates were just 56% in the last year.

Furthermore, staff shortages result in a litany of other problems: on-site and external healthcare appointments missed; drug tests curtailed in the ‘drug free’ Jubilee Wing; prisoners going without showers or unable to phone their families; and, extraordinarily, mental health assessments sometimes taking place through the locked doors of cells.

However despite these challenges, the report shows that Pentonville has bucked the national trend of increases in violent incidents with a modest, but encouraging, reduction in the period 2015-16 of 847 compared to 870 the previous year.

Staff morale has taken a battering over several years due to a combination of factors, not least poor annual reports, and a lack of investment from Government. But November’s announcement that nine new prisons would be built and “ageing and ineffective” Victorian prisons would be closed did not help matters, according to the report.

Although Pentonville has benefitted from the welcome transfer of a number of staff from the former women’s prison HMP Holloway, board members say more staff is not in itself enough: “The condition of this 174-year old prison is poor and nothing short of a massive injection of capital will improve the conditions for any but a handful of prisoners.”

The full report is available here:


What are IMBs?

The Prison Act 1952 requires every prison to be monitored by an independent board appointed by the Secretary of State from members of the community in which the prison is situated.  The Board is charged to:

  • satisfy itself as to the humane and just treatment of those held in custody within its prison and the range and adequacy of the programmes preparing them for release.
  • inform promptly the Secretary of State, or any official to whom he has delegated authority as it judges appropriate, any concern it has.
  • report annually to the Secretary of State on how well the prison has met the standards and requirements placed on it and what impact these have on those in its custody.

To enable the Board to carry out these duties effectively its members have right of access to every prisoner, to every part of the prison and to the prison’s records.