First of the new HMI ‘Independent Review of Progress’ Reports shows “Too Little Too Late” at HMP Exeter

“A thoroughly depressing report”
Mark Leech, Editor:  The Prisons Handbook
for England and Wales

Work to address key failings at HMP Exeter, a troubled prison found last year to suffer high levels of drug-fuelled violence, has lacked urgency, according to HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In the first of its new ‘Independent Reviews of Progress’ (IRPs) – in Exeter in April 2019 – HMIP tested progress against key recommendations from a full inspection in May last year. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, was so concerned by the conditions in Exeter at that time that he issued a rarely-used ‘Urgent Notification’ requiring the Secretary of State to respond with plans for improvement within 28 days.

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The IRP visit presented a mixed picture. One of the most troubling findings was ‘no meaningful progress’ in understanding the factors underlying high levels of illicit drug use.

Mr Clarke said that while there had been progress on some aspects, “the lack of progress in over half the 13 recommendations that we reviewed could be characterised by the statement ‘too little too late’.

“The purpose of the Urgent Notification Protocol, which is only used where I have serious concerns about the treatment of and conditions for prisoners, is to initiate immediate remedial action.

“At Exeter, in too many critical areas, this simply had not happened. It was not clear whether this was as a result of a conscious decision not to prioritise our recommendations, bureaucratic inertia, or whether managers were simply overwhelmed or uncertain as to how to set about making the much-needed improvements. 

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“Whatever the reason, there had not been a sufficient sense of urgency in the prison’s response to a number of key recommendations.”

In the May 2018 inspection, inspectors found there had been six self-inflicted deaths between 2016 and 2018 and self-harm had risen by 40%. Despite these levels of vulnerability, self-harm and suicide, cell call bells were routinely ignored by staff. The rate of assaults between prisoners was then the highest inspectors had seen in a local prison in recent years.

In April 2019, the IRP found that overall levels of violence had decreased, though they remained higher than in similar prisons. Mr Clarke said: “A number of actions had been taken to reduce violence and the strategy to reduce violence further in the future was promising.” The use of unregulated segregation had been eradicated, and governance of the use of force by staff was improving.

“However, despite a rise in the already high use of illicit drugs in the establishment, there had been an inexplicable failure to develop a comprehensive drug strategy which, if properly implemented, would certainly contribute to a reduction in violence. A draft strategy was being put together and it is essential that this is now treated as a priority.”

Relationships between staff and prisoners were found to be improving and improvement processes were in place to monitor cell bell responses. There was progress on prisoner applications and complaints, though equality and diversity work had not been prioritised at all. Similarly, attendance at education and work, some of which remained mundane, had not been prioritised.

Mr Clarke said that after the Urgent Notification the prison was required to produce an action plan for the Secretary of State but a number of the deadlines in this plan had not been met on time.

“Nevertheless, there had been a proactive response to some recommendations in critical areas and there are now credible plans to make further improvements in the future. It is unfortunate that the prison had not devised and implemented some of these plans earlier as they would no doubt have led to a more positive assessment at this review of progress.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales called the report ‘thoroughly depressing’.

Mr Leech said: “We all had high hopes that the Urgent Notification process would lead to real and lasting improvements in those prisons which have been subject to it – HMP Exeter was the first such prison to benefit from a post Urgent Notification IRP and this review of progress is a thoroughly depressing report that demonstrates that not even the Justice Secretary’s public undertakings of progress can be relied upon.”

The report is available here: https://www.prisons.org.uk/Exeter-HMI-IRP-052019.pdf