Conditions deteriorating in Nottingham prisons

HMP Lowdham Grange

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019

The use of force by staff at HMP Lowdham Grange has doubled over the past three years. So says the report, published in January 2019, of a surprise inspection carried out in August 2018.* Inspectors also found that levels of violence had increased in the prison over the same period, as had self-harm incidents. This news comes after a series of prisoner protests over substandard conditions in July and August last year, during which protesters were reportedly beaten, attacked with stun grenades and one thrown down a metal staircase. Private owners Serco are actively profiting by subjecting prisoners to these dire conditions. BENJAMIN WHITE reports.

Increased use of force

As capitalism sinks ever further into crisis, prisoners’ rights in Britain are increasingly under attack. Public sector prisons are hit by wave after wave of spending cuts, while those under private ownership can only be profitable by reducing quality of conditions and access to services.

HMP Lowdham Grange is a male ‘training prison’ in Nottinghamshire; it opened in 1998 and has been run since then by the private multinational Serco. Lowdham Grange is the second oldest purpose-built private prison in Britain and started operating not long after the election of the 1997-2010 Labour government which, reneging on a pre-election pledge to the contrary, embraced private sector involvement in punishment. In its early years of operation the prison was widely viewed as a great success, boasting modern facilities, long hours out of their cells for prisoners and good access to education and training. However, all this was soon subsumed in the incessant quest for profit. In 2010 the capacity of the prison was increased by a third, and the regime has progressively deteriorated.

At Lowdham Grange today prisoners are forced to contend with increasing violence from both staff and other prisoners, whilst the quality of training available is in decline. HM Inspectorate of Prisons found that ‘levels of violence [between prisoners] were high, with some serious incidents resulting in hospitalisation’. Purportedly in response to the increase of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, staff members have stepped up their use of force and segregation. Inspectors found that this had little oversight or accountability: 314 incidents of force had been reported in the six months preceding the report, six of which involved prisoners being struck with batons. Large gaps were discovered in the paperwork documenting the use of force. Even when statements could be found, they ‘did not always match video footage’.

The overall conclusion of the inspection is that, despite several urgent issues, Lowdham Grange is a ‘mostly respectful’ prison; however reports from prisoners’ relatives and former residents paint a far bleaker picture. Several have described suffering racist abuse from staff and being aggressively beaten as a form of manipulation. Prisoners are locked in their cells, sometimes without food, for unreasonably long periods. Newcomers can be left for weeks without having a healthcare assessment – the average wait for a routine doctor’s appointment is 64 days. Lowdham Grange bears all the hallmarks of a prison system operating with profit at its heart rather than adequate prisoner welfare and education.

Protests over conditions

As tensions came to a head in July/August 2018, prisoners took protest action on at least three occasions. Several reports claim that guards used disproportionate violence against the protesting prisoners. Some of those involved have described being attacked with stun grenades and flashbangs. Others, some of whom weren’t even involved in the protests, were dragged around and punched by guards – who wore balaclavas to remain anonymous. On 13 August the BBC website quoted a prisoner’s relative who ‘said she was told a handcuffed inmate had been thrown down stairs and others “pulled from cells and punched”.’

Failing mental health services

Private prisons routinely fail to provide even the most rudimentary health care services. In a system run for profit, every penny spent on medication or therapy is a penny out of the shareholders’ pockets. Inspectors of Lowdham Grange found a pronounced increase in levels of self-harm in the prison. 349 incidents were reported in six months alone. Two prisoners had taken their own lives since 2015.

In 2016 the total number of self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales hit a record high of 119, double what it was four years earlier, equivalent to one person every three days. Only a few miles away from Lowdham Grange at state-run HMP Nottingham, nine prisoners are known to have killed themselves since early 2016, with a further four deaths currently under investigation.

Currently 15% of British prisoners are held in private gaols – the second largest proportion worldwide after Australia. In the first half of 2018, as conditions were rapidly deteriorating in HMP Lowdham Grange, Serco’s profits nearly doubled. While prisoners had to contend with racist abuse, regular aggression and appalling mental health provision, Serco celebrated taking £25.6m pre-tax profit. A prison system focused primarily around generating profit will never be able to provide a decent quality of life for prisoners.

* Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Lowdham Grange by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons


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