Chief Inspector says prison conditions worse than ever

Image: HM Prisons Inspectorate

On 11 July the prisons inspectorate published its annual report into the prison system of England and Wales. Inspectorate reports are rarely a cheerful read but the latest one is particularly grim. Chief Inspector Peter Clarke introduces the report by describing the previous year as ‘a dramatic period in which HM Inspectorate of Prisons documented some of the most disturbing prison conditions we have ever seen – conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century.’ Nicki Jameson reports.

The report describes violent, dangerous prisons in which people with mental health and substance abuse problems are neglected and brutalised:

Poor conditions

  • 20% of prisoners surveyed said they were unlocked for less than two hours a day, this rising to an even more shocking 38% in two young offender institutes (YOIs).
  • With a daily food budget of around £2 per person, establishments struggled to provide meals of reasonable quantity.
  • Lengthy periods were spent waiting at court to be taken to prison, followed by long journeys and prolonged waits in reception on arrival. In Pentonville the wait could be six hours before prisoners were allocated a cell.
  • Prisoners moved between prisons were often taken without any personal property, which was a major source of frustration.
  • Fewer than half the prisoners surveyed said they were offered a free telephone call on arrival to let family know that they were all right. Only a third were able to shower on their first night and some were locked up without anything to eat or a pillow to sleep on. Very few prisons had information in other languages or interpreters for induction.


  • In February 2017 the inspectorate wrote to the government to say it was unable to classify any YOI or secure training centre as safe enough to hold child prisoners.
  • At many adult male prisons, levels of violence had increased or remained high since the previous inspection. The number of recorded incidents had doubled at Northumberland prison and tripled at Erlestoke.
  • Much of the violence was linked to drugs, debt, mental health and poor conditions. Some prisons had dedicated wings for prisoners seeking protection from bullying and victimisation, but elsewhere inspectors found many prisoners isolated and too afraid to leave their cells.
  • At HMP Swansea, clinical treatment for prisoners withdrawing from opiates remained inadequate and contributed to a high demand for illicit drugs.
  • Self-harm reported incidents rose 11% from 40,161 in 2016 to 44,651 in 2017.
  • At Harmondsworth immigration removal centre a blind detainee on self-harm monitoring had been detained for over a year and a wheelchair user who had tried to set himself on fire had been held for 15 months.


  • There were 291 deaths in male prisons in England and Wales in 2017-18, a fall of 33 from the previous year but still unacceptably high. Of these deaths, 68 were self-inflicted and five appeared to be homicide.
  • 14% of the self-inflicted deaths occurred within the first week of custody and 27% within the first 30 days.

Staffing levels drop

We have long reported in FRFI on such appalling prison conditions and have given short shrift to repeated claims by the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) that all the problems result from staff shortages. The POA has been crying wolf to this effect for decades, including in prisons where staff ratios were virtually one on one. However, in very recent years, the effect of cutting staff numbers while continuing to herd ever more men and women into custody has genuinely begun to be felt in most prisons outside the high security estate.

The report confirms that: ‘the huge increase in violence… has really only taken place in the past five years, at the time when large reductions in staff numbers were taking effect. Prior to 2013, self-harm and assaults had remained at broadly static levels for at least the previous five years’, going on to report that: ‘Prisoners often complained about a lack of regular staff, inexperienced staff, and limited staff contact affecting the ability to get even simple things done.’

This applies not just to prison officers but to others working in prisons, and in particular healthcare where  low staffing levels ‘had affected... waiting times, lifelong condition management, primary mental health services, psychosocial substance misuse services, and staff support and development.’

Negligence and violence

None of this is to say that prison officers are blameless and the report details shocking examples of negligent behaviour that do not appear to be related to short staffing, and of overt violence towards prisoners.

The high level of deaths in early days in custody is partially attributed by the inspectorate to the failure by staff to ‘carry out initial risk assessment interviews in private, inhibiting the disclosure of vulnerabilities and the identification of risk’.

The Prison Rules say that prisoners in segregation should have daily access to the telephone, a shower and time outside for exercise, and be encouraged to access purposeful activities. The report says that in most establishments even this minimum level of decency was not met.

In two-thirds of prisons inspected in the year prior to the report, inspectors found ‘increased use of force on prisoners, and significant gaps in the governance of this. In half the prisons, we had concerns about the quality of documentation to justify the use of force. Video footage and documentation did not always provide evidence that use of force was necessary or proportionate to the risk posed.’

At Preston prison, the inspectors found ‘cases where staff had forcibly strip-searched prisoners under restraint by cutting off their prison clothing with anti-ligature knives’.

Urgent Notification – sticking plaster on a gaping wound

In 2015 then Justice Minister Michael Gove planned a shake-up of the prison system which would, among other measures, have given the prisons inspectorate – which currently only has an advisory status – powers to enforce its recommendations. When Theresa May called her snap general election in 2017, the Prison Reform and Courts Bill was scrapped, so this never became law; however some components have been brought in, and in November 2017 the ‘Urgent Notification protocol’ came into force. This provides for the Chief Inspector to notify the Secretary of State when an inspection throws up serious concerns, and places a requirement on the Secretary of State to respond with an action plan for improvement within 28 days.

This protocol was used formally for the first time in January 2018 in relation to HMP Nottingham, although the report makes it clear that if it had been in place earlier it would also have been used against Wormwood Scrubs – where for the third consecutive inspection the prison attracted the lowest possible safety grading – and Liverpool prison, where the inspectors found ‘some of the worst conditions we had ever seen’ (see ‘Liverpool – Britain’s worst prison’, FRFI 263 April/May 2018).

A reading of the current inspectorate annual report indicates that almost every single prison merits the serving of such an Urgent Notification. In reality, these are likely to have little or no effect on the vile, deadly British prison system.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 265 August/September 2018


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