HMP SWALESIDE – Safer and more respectful, but weaker on activity and rehabilitation

Published 8th May 2019

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has said that HMP Swaleside, a training prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent holding many men serving long sentences for violent offences, had ‘become safer and more respectful over two years’ – despite the fact that outcomes for prisoners against the safety prison test ‘were not sufficiently good.”

Swaleside prison, which opened in 1988, is located on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Covering mainly London and the South-East, the South-West as well as Wales, the prison first opened with four wings, adding four further wings between 1998 and 2010. In 2010, a psychologically informed planned environment (PIPE) unit was built, along with a pre-PIPE unit for prisoners with personality disorders and very challenging behaviour.

The prison held a complex population, including a psychologically informed planned environment unit, a wing holding prisoners seeking protection, a wing for prisoners convicted of sexual offences and a lifer wing. About a third of prisoners were serving an indeterminate sentence. Eighty-five per cent of prisoners potentially needed multi-agency supervision on release. Seventy-five per cent of the population had been assessed as presenting a high risk of harm. About 60% of prisoners had committed a violent offence. Thirty-five per cent of prison officers had been in the Prison Service for less than 12 months. One hundred and eighty-eight prisoners were employed as wing workers. Two hundred and eight-seven prisoners, about a quarter of the population, were unemployed.

Safety: Early days arrangements were generally good and prisoners were kept safe. The number of violent incidents was high. Innovative work to combat violence was promising but not yet fully productive and required more coordination. Too many prisoners in our survey said that they felt unsafe.

The number of adjudication charges had increased but processes were fair. Levels of use of force were high but oversight was generally good. Prisoners were routinely stripped of their clothing on entering the special cell, which was sometimes used without sufficient justification. The use of segregation was high and some prisoners spent a long time on the unit. Some of the work to help these individuals was impressive.

Security arrangements were generally  proportionate. Levels of self-harm were comparatively low but five prisoners had killed themselves since the previous inspection. there was some good, innovative work to help those with complex needs. The mandatory drug testing positive rate was high, at 25%, but work to reduce the supply of drugs was having some success.  

Outcomes for prisoners against this healthy prison test were not sufficiently good.”

At the last inspection in 2016 we found that outcomes for prisoners in Swaleside were poor against this healthy prison test. We made 12 recommendations in the area of safety At this inspection we found that nine of the recommendations had been achieved, one had been partially achieved and two had not been achieved.

However, progress was assessed as “lop-sided” because the quality of purposeful activity remained insufficiently good since the previous inspection in 2016 and rehabilitation and resettlement work was now assessed as poor, the lowest assessment.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that although the population was comparatively settled “Swaleside is unquestionably a difficult place to run and an institution that presents many risks.”

In 2016, it was found to be “dangerous” and safety was assessed as poor. In December 2018, it still suffered high levels of violence and too many men felt unsafe. But inspectors also found very good work to reduce the supply of drugs, a significant effort to improve safety and some impressive care for those at risk of self-harm. The overall assessment of safety rose from poor to ‘not sufficiently good.’

Relationships between staff and prisoners were generally very good, with over 70% of men saying they thought staff treated them with respect. Many staff were, however, quite inexperienced and some lacked the confidence to challenge poor behaviour.

Most cells were well maintained but the standard of cleanliness “did not correlate with the plethora of supposed prisoner cleaners.” The report noted: “During our night visit, we saw rats in corridors near rubbish bags that had not been disposed of correctly. There was an excessive number of prisoners supposedly employed to clean but the lack of effective staff supervision resulted in little cleaning actually taking place.”

Inspectors found 32% of men locked in their cell during the working day – an improvement on 2016 but still poor. Good standards of work were evident in many aspects of education, skills and work and, for those engaged, the achievement of qualifications was high. This was undermined, however, by poor allocation to activity, under-employment, poor attendance and poor punctuality.

Mr Clarke added: “Core tasks of a prison that manages the type of prisoner held at Swaleside are meaningful sentence management, the reduction of risk of harm and ultimately the protection of the public. In these tasks Swaleside was failing badly.”

Public protection arrangements were weak and offending behaviour interventions were limited, especially for the prison’s population of sexual offenders. More than 160 men convicted of sex offences were moved to Swaleside at the end of 2016 in an attempt to stabilise the jail.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“There was much to commend at Swaleside. Managers were energetic, caring and innovative, and staff, though inexperienced, were proactive and helpful. Improvements were clearly to be seen, as reflected in our assessments. That said, many improvements were undermined by failings elsewhere…While there had been some incremental improvements in safety, many prisoners were not fully engaged in the regime and some prisoners’ rehabilitation needs were not being met. Managers need to take a step back and think carefully about how they will not only sustain and integrate their achievements but also take a holistic approach to improving outcomes across all four of our healthy prison assessments.”

Phil Copple, Director General of Prisons at HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), said:

“I am pleased that inspectors recognise the improvements that have been made, along with the energy and care that Swaleside staff put into what is acknowledged as their particularly challenging work. Clearly more still needs to be done to address violence and give prisoners more time out of their cells in education and training. Improved safety procedures have been introduced and the prison will also benefit from the new education framework we have implemented across the country to help offenders use their time in custody constructively.”

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

Swaleside has a complex and difficult prison to manage population, the improvement in safety and respect is very welcome  but the stalling of purposeful activity and the fall in release planning shows a prison where far too much focus is set around getting basic control.

Swaleside demonstrates a prison that sees itself as a destination and not a journey, its focus is on getting through each day and with the reality of release for many some years away, the end of sentence planning is not in sharp enough focus and it needs to be – focus on release planning should begin right at the start of the sentence, tentatively in these cases but it must be there if light is to seen at the end of each tunnel,

Purposeful Activity: Too many prisoners were locked in their cells during the working day, and prisoners spent far too long in their cells at weekends. The library and gym facilities were good. The leadership and management of education, work and skills required improvement. Too many prisoners were not allocated to activities. The quality of most teaching and instructing was good but there was too little accredited training in workshops. Not enough prisoners improved their employment skills. Prisoners’ attendance and punctuality were not good enough. Outcomes and achievements for prisoners were reasonably good. Outcomes for prisoners against this healthy prison test were not sufficiently good.

Release Planning: Prisoners now had telephones in their cells, which was appreciated and helped them to maintain contact with families. Visits arrangements were generally good but sessions did not always start on time. The strategic management of reducing reoffending was poor. Too many prisoners did not have an up-to-date assessment of their risks and needs. Offender supervisors had little contact with prisoners, most of which was reactive. Arrangements to protect the public were weak. Categorisation processes were adequate. There were too few places on offending behaviour programmes to meet the needs of the population, and none specifically for prisoners convicted of sexual offences. Not all prisoners were moved to a resettlement prisons before release. Outcomes for prisoners against this healthy prison test were poor.

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