HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) generated new and unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in the scrutiny of prisons in England and Wales in 2018–19, according to HM Chief Inspector Peter Clarke.
Publishing his annual report, Mr Clarke made clear that robust independent scrutiny was vital after another deeply troubling year for some parts of the prison estate. Too many prisons continued to be plagued by drugs, violence, appalling living conditions and a lack of access to meaningful rehabilitative activity.
What goes on in prisons remained largely unseen by the public and the media. However, in 2018–19 Mr Clarke used the Urgent Notification protocol – requiring the Secretary of State publicly to respond with action to improve a jail with significant problems – three times. Those prisons were HMPs Exeter, Bedford and Birmingham, where inspectors found some of the worst conditions they had ever seen.
The Inspectorate also secured funding and developed the methodology for its new Independent Reviews of Progress (IRPs), designed to give ministers an independent assessment of how well failing jails were addressing key Inspectorate recommendations. The Justice Select Committee, in its report on HMIP’s inspection of HMP Liverpool in 2017, had expressed concern that the prison service was effectively ‘marking its own homework’ and concluded there should be an injection of independence in the follow up to inspection reports.
Transparency and accountability
In his annual report, Mr Clarke asks: “How do we independently assess accountability in the inevitably closed world of prisons? The need for greater transparency in the delivery of this key public service has led to some important developments over the past two years that I hope will prove to be a turning point in improving the impact of independent prison inspection in England and Wales.
“There will be around 15–20 IRPs in 2019–20 and each subsequent year and these will be focused on prisons subject to an Urgent Notification or where there are other causes for serious concern.”
Mr Clarke added: “They will concentrate on progress in implementing key recommendations, and will look to see if action plans are properly focused, resourced, and with clear timelines and lines of accountability for improvement.
“As with Urgent Notifications, IRPs will be published, affording a higher level of both political and public accountability than has hitherto been the case. Our first IRPs (in 2019–20) at HMPs Exeter, Chelmsford, The Mount and Birmingham have suggested that a great deal of energy has gone into responding to Urgent Notifications and some other very concerning inspection reports, but that in some instances the response has been disappointingly slow.
“Nevertheless, the early indications are that they are prompting a more focused response than we have become accustomed to seeing in the past.”
Mr Clarke made clear he believes such independent scrutiny is vital, given his reservations about the effectiveness of the current HMPPS ‘special measures’ system.
“On some occasions the response has been to place a struggling prison in ‘special measures’, but I do not have confidence in that as a reliable means of driving improvement. The inspection of HMP Lewes in January 2019 found a prison that had been in special measures for two years, and yet had declined in no less than three of our four healthy prison tests and failed to improve in the vital test of safety.
“Similarly, the special measures at HMP Bedford left me with little confidence that the prison could improve, and the use of the Urgent Notification process was inevitable.
He added: “HMI Prisons will remain resolutely independent in all that it does, but that should not and will not stop us being supportive and, where appropriate, collaborative in helping prisons to improve. We are therefore pleased that early indications are that establishments are warmly welcoming the advent of IRPs. Managers have appreciated the focus that the IRP visits have given.”
The most troubled part of the prison estate
As in previous years, men’s local and training prisons – with their high throughput of prisoners, often worn-out fabric, vulnerable populations and levels of violence and illicit drugs use – caused most concern.
The report also discloses significant prisoner vulnerability. Across the service, levels of self‑harm were disturbingly high and self-inflicted deaths tragically increased by nearly one-fifth on the previous year.
Mr Clarke said the prison service response to the “deluge of drugs flowing into many prisons in recent years,” generating debt, bullying and violence, had often been slow and neither robust nor sophisticated. “The introduction of new technology that is necessary to help counter the threat has been patchy.”
The extraordinary dedication of staff
Inspectors were struck, as in previous years, “by the extraordinary dedication of those who work in our prisons. Their work is difficult, often dangerous, largely unseen by the public and, as a result, little understood.
“Many worked through a period in which reduced resources, both in terms of staff and investment, made it extremely difficult to run some of our jails.” New staff deserved support in an environment where, in too many establishments, drug-fuelled violence remained a daily reality.
Variations in performance and the quality of leadership
The report highlights evidence that performance varies between comparable prisons and makes clear the Chief Inspector’s view that the quality of leadership is a vital factor. “Some issues that have an adverse impact on prisoners are often outside the control of prison leaders.
“However, there is much that is firmly within the control of those whose responsibility it is to lead and manage these complex establishments. It is as clear as day… that the variations in performance of apparently comparable jails is directly influenced by the quality of their leadership. “
The report contains information from inspections of adult prisons and children’s detention, as well as immigration and other forms of detention.
- Men’s prisons: Too many prisoners were still being held in prisons that were unsafe. Levels of violence had increased in more than half the prisons we inspected.
- Respectful detention and living conditions: Inspectors noted the positive impact of in-cell phones and electronic kiosks for prisoners to make applications, health care appointments, arrange visits and make complaints. However, far too many prisoners still endured very poor and overcrowded living conditions. Though around two-thirds of prisoners overall were positive about the way they were treated by staff, inspectors frequently found that prisoners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds had less positive views of their treatment and conditions. There was no clear strategy for older prisoners.
- Purposeful activity: In only a third of the adult male prisons inspected was purposeful activity, which includes the provision of education, work and training, judged to be good or reasonably good.
- Rehabilitation and release planning: Overall, there was some progress but much remained to be done, particularly around prisoners who presented a potentially high risk of harm to the public being released without a full risk assessment. Inspectors saw large cohorts of sex offenders in prisons where specialist interventions were not available.
- Women’s prisons: Overall, inspectors continued to find that outcomes for women held in prison were better than for men.
- Children’s custody: HMIP inspected four young offender institutions and three secure training centres. Safety assessment had improved in three inspections. Nevertheless, levels of violence remained high and bullying was a constant concern.
- Immigration detention: Inspection outcomes were good or reasonably good. However, detainees continued to feel unsafe and uncertain because there was too often a lack of clarity as to what the future held for them.
- Police custody: HMIP, with HMICFRS, jointly wrote to Chief Constables expressing concern about the governance and oversight of the use of force.