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

Stop placing elderly inmates in jails with few ground floor cells

The prison service has been urged to stop placing elderly or immobile inmates in jails with few cells on the ground floor.

Some men held in upstairs accommodation at HMP Brixton struggled to collect their meals or make it to social activities, a watchdog report found.

They also faced difficulties accessing a mobility scooter located at ground level.

The Independent Monitoring Board for the south London prison found that its “cramped” cells cannot accommodate two men humanely, particularly if they are old or infirm.

The majority of men aged over 60 and all those over 70 were held in G-wing, where there is only one cell on the ground floor and no lift.

The report said: “This made it difficult for men to get their meals, access social activities and exercise, and use the one mobility scooter on the ground floor.”

As of August, 21 inmates were assisted by “buddies”, who collected their meals and did other tasks like making the bed.

The IMB called on HM Prison & Probation Service to end the practice of allocating men who are aged over 65, or have chronic mobility problems, to prisons with minimal or limited ground floor accommodation, and where they may have to share cells with bunk beds.

Last year, a joint assessment by two watchdogs warned that the prison service and local authorities are failing to plan for a rise in elderly, ill and frail inmates

The report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Care Quality Commission found many older jails are ill-equipped for prisoners in wheelchairs or with mobility problems.

There were 13,636 prisoners aged 50 or over in England and Wales in September, representing 16% of the prison population.

Projections indicate that the number of individuals in older age brackets held in custodial settings is likely to increase.

The report on HMP Brixton found the prison has improved significantly over the past year.

Graham King, chairman of the IMB, said: “The Governor and his team, including staff at all levels and in agencies, have pushed forward with vision and commitment to make Brixton a fairer and more decent prison.

Read the Report

Brixton Prison ‘Is Not Safe’ – the second report of unsafe London prisons in two days


HMP Brixton was not safe, and the work, training and education it provided for prisoners needed to improve, said Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the local London jail – it is the second report of unsafe London prisons in two days

HMP Brixton is one of the country’s oldest prisons. Although historically a local prison, it has in recent years been operating as a training establishment for category C and D prisoners. The limitations of the environment mean it is always a challenge to run Brixton well, but clarification of its changed function had been a step forward and the basis for recent improvement. Progress, however, had not been maintained. Staff shortages, as well as, until recently, managerial drift, had led to a significant decline in outcomes, notably in safety but also in the quality of learning and skills activity.
Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • arrangements to receive new prisoners had worsened since the last inspection in 2014;
  • almost a third of prisoners, when surveyed, said they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection;
  • levels of violence had increased and were high, and the prison’s response was wholly inadequate;
  • the number of self-harm incidents had quadrupled since the last inspection, and care for those at risk of self-harm was generally poor;
  • although some good work was being done to increase security, the prison was awash with drugs, undermining everything that was being done to promote prisoner wellbeing;
  • the prison remained a poor, cramped, overcrowded environment;
  • relationships between staff and prisoners needed to improve, the situation not helped by severe staff shortages;
  • time out of cell had deteriorated, although a temporary regime had brought greater predictability of when prisoners would be out of their cells;
  • nearly a quarter of prisoners were locked up during the working day, which undermined attempts at rehabilitation; and
  • there were enough work, training and education places, but the restricted regime meant prisoners couldn’t always attend or get there on time.


However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • health care provision was reasonable overall;
  • some vocational training was exceptional;
  • key processes such as parole and home detention curfew assessments were completed on time and public protection work was sound; and
  • plans to reintegrate prisoners back into the community showed some good features.



Peter Clarke said:

“We inspected Brixton at a difficult time. A new governor had been recently appointed and there were signs of new initiatives and developing plans that were beginning to arrest and address the deterioration. There was a candour and openness on the part of managers concerning the problems they faced and optimism about their capacity to improve the prison. We did not consider that the prison had already turned a corner, but there were signs of progress that must be sustained.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of HM Prison & Probation Service, said:

“At the time of the inspection Brixton was managing a range of operational pressures exacerbated by staffing shortfalls.

“As the Inspectorate notes, a new and experienced Governor was appointed in October and he has put plans in place to urgently address the areas of concern, prioritising safety and regime delivery.

“We are recruiting more Prison Officers for Brixton and across the prison estate. I am confident that with additional resources in place the Governor and his team will achieve the improvements required.”

A copy of the full report, published on 15 June, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at:


cumberbatchBroadchurch actress Olivia Colman wiped tears away as she stood alongside Benedict Cumberbatch while performing at a literary event hosted inside Brixton prison.

The British stars joined a string of personalities in reading famous letters to an audience from inside the prison chapel as part of a Letters Live special broadcast to 110 prisons across England and Wales in support of the 10th anniversary of the Prison Radio Association.

Cumberbatch read a letter written by the late singer Leonard Cohen to his muse and former lover Marianne Ihlen, who inspired one of his most famous hits, the 1967 song So Long Marianne.

The Canadian singer and songwriter, who died aged 82 last month, wrote a letter to Ihlen in July this year, which was reportedly read to her on her deathbed just days before she died aged 81.

Colman, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for The Night Manager earlier this week, became emotional as she read the reply to Cohen’s letter, written by a friend of Ihlen’s, at the event held at the South London prison.

The touching letter from Cohen said: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Ihlen’s friend replied writing that Marianne had “slept slowly out of this life yesterday evening. Totally at ease, surrounded by close friends.”

“Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her,” the letter said.

It ended poignantly on the famous lyrics penned by Cohen himself: “So long, Marianne.”

The letters were just two of a series of memorable letters read by famous names that also included comedian Russell Brand, actor Mark Strong and television presenter Mariella Frostrup.

They were also joined by former prisoners who read letters that have been sent to National Prison Radio (NPR) over the years.

The first Letters Live event was held in December 2013, and was inspired by Shaun Usher’s best-selling Letters Of Note series and website, as well as Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter.

Brand drew laughs a plenty as he read the letter of complaint written in 1932 by comedian Fred Allen to the State of New York Insurance Department, documenting his dissatisfaction with the compensation he’d received from an insurance company.

Poet and spoken word artist Kate Tempest received a standing ovation after she read an extract from her own award-winning piece titled Brand New Ancients.

Strong, the star of films such as RocknRolla and The Imitation Game, read a letter written by British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1918, while he was an inmate at Brixton prison, after being imprisoned for his anti-war lectures and writings.

Russell was only allowed to write one letter a week, but disguised letters to his lover by writing in French and claiming they were chapters of a book he was penning.

Clarke Peters, star of popular American TV show The Wire, read two letters, one of which included pairing up with Tempest.

The twosome read the correspondence between American singer Iggy Pop and a 21-year-old fan named Laurence, who later revealed the letter arrived at her home in Paris on the morning her family were being evicted by bailiffs.

Pop replied to the 20-page letter penned by Laurence, saying: “thank you for your gorgeous and charming letter, you brighten up my dim life. i read the whole fucking thing, dear. of course, i’d love to see you in your black dress and your white socks too. but most of all i want to see you take a deep breath and do whatever you must to survive and find something to be that you can love.”

The first letter read by Peters was written by American novelist, playwright and poet James Baldwin, who Peters said was a close friend of his.

National Prison Radio is the world’s national radio station for prisoners and is transmitted daily into the cells of some 80,000 prisoners, 24 hours a day.

Worker at Brixton jail charged with trying to buy gun and ammo

BrixtonPrisonEntranceA prison worker is facing a series of charges including allegedly stealing a police uniform and trying to buy a Glock handgun and 100 rounds of ammunition.

Dwain Osborne, 26, from Penge, south east London, who worked in the library at Brixton jail, also allegedly had a media drive containing a list of all inmates and their cells, and a list of staff and their personal information.

He is accused of trying to buy the gun and ammunition on the so-called “Dark Web” – unlisted and hard-to-trace websites – and when officers from the National Crime Agency searched his home in October last year it is claimed they also found the media drive, a police uniform and two stolen passports.

During a second search earlier this month, it is alleged they found cocaine with wraps, scales and cutting agent, as well as cash.

Osborne is facing nine counts including attempting to possess a firearm and attempting to possess ammunition with intent to endanger life; and attempting to buy a gun and attempting to buy ammunition without authority.

The remaining five charges are possession of cocaine with intent to supply; possession of a class B drug; theft of a police uniform; possession of identity documents belonging to another; and gaining unauthorised access with intent to commit or facilitate the commission of a further offence under the Computer Misuse Act.

Osborne is due to appear at the Old Bailey on March 17.

Brixton Prison – ‘Too Much on Hold’ say Inspectors


HMP Brixton needed to do more to build a new culture and ways of working to suit its changed role, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection of the south London jail.

Some 12 months before the inspection, HMP Brixton been re-designated to a category C/D resettlement prison, ending the role it has had for many years as a category B local prison holding remand and short-sentenced prisoners. The inspection found the prison with plans well advanced but not yet delivered for the major improvements to its facilities required for its new role. Although the prison now held a mixture of category C and low risk category D prisoners, its regime and facilities were little changed from its former category B role. Work was well underway to provide new and refurbished activity buildings that should provide sufficient activity places for the entire population and a new learning and skills manager had begun to address issues of quality and prisoner achievement. However, there was a danger of too much reliance being placed on the new provision to resolve all the prison’s problems and not enough was being done to make improvements that were needed now.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • the prison was operating at 60% over its certified normal capacity and many prisoners shared small, cramped cells;
  • there was far too little activity for the size of the population, so many prisoners were locked in their cells for more than 20 hours a day;
  • the quality of learning, skills and work activities was too often inadequate and overall the quantity and quality was unacceptable in any prison, but particularly so in a resettlement prison;
  • offender management arrangements were poor and serious delays in completing risk assessments, lack of contact with offender supervisors and the placement of prisoners at Brixton too late in their sentence meant it was difficult for many to make progress;
  • prisoners’ frustrations were compounded by security restrictions more appropriate for the prison’s former role as a category B local than its new role as a resettlement prison;
  • prisoners reported very poor relationships with staff;
  • many prisoners found it difficult to get basic needs met, such as the provision of clean clothing;
  • reception arrangements were very poor and prisoners had been left in vans for up to two hours in the middle of the hottest days in the summer; and
  • substance misuse services were good but were undermined by the availability of drugs, such as cannabis, in the prison.

However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • despite some inadequate learning, skills and work activities, there were some exceptions, such as the bakery, prison radio and external placements for category D prisoners;
  • plans for a restaurant in the prison, staffed by prisoners but open to the public, had the potential to provide valuable opportunities;
  • levels of self-harm were low and those at risk felt well supported; and
  • level of violence were low and there was little use of force.

Nick Hardwick said:

“Brixton prison is at a turning point. This inspection came at a very bad time for the prison – when all the disadvantages of major building works were apparent but none of the advantages of the new provision had yet been realised. However, the fact was that the prison was not yet ready for the category C and D prisoners it now held and too many lacked the opportunities for purposeful activity and rehabilitation they needed. Too much was on hold waiting for the new facilities to be ready and some elements of prisoners’ treatment and conditions were unacceptable – and had remained so for too long.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), said:

“Brixton prison was undergoing a significant change when the Chief Inspector visited but since then it has continued to adapt to its new role.

“In January the prison will see further changes with a new range of employment and education initiatives helping to increase productive time out of cell. This includes a new Clink Restaurant opening in February, which will give offenders the chance to learn the skills that can help them secure employment once they leave prison.

“The governor and his staff have been working hard to tackle the issues raised during this inspection and will continue to drive the prison forward in the new year.”


Notes to Editors:

  1. A copy of the report can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website from 17 December 2013 at
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 1-12 July 2013.
  4. HMP Brixton is a category C/D resettlement prison.
  5. Please contact Jane Parsons in HMI Prisons Press Office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information or to request an interview with Nick Hardwick.