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.