MoJ rapped as ‘special measures’ prison still ‘violent and squalid’ two years on
Inspectorate sounds alarm after finding high levels of violence and self-harm at HMP Bristol
The chief prisons inspector has urged justice secretary David Gauke to step in and address “shocking” conditions at Bristol prison, after an inspection found high levels of violence and “squalid” living conditions.
Peter Clarke, HM chief inspector of prisons, wrote to Gauke invoking an “urgent notification”, which compels the justice secretary to respond publicly, for HMP Bristol after finding conditions had not improved since the prison was placed in special measures by Ministry of Justice executive agency HM Prisons and Probation Service in 2017.
In a letter dated 11 June, Clarke said an unannounced inspection of the publicly-run prison had found “numerous significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of prisoners”.
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The prison recorded much higher levels of violence than other nearby prisons, and that efforts to reduce violence - including some “some very important work” to combat illegal drugs - was poorly coordinated and inconsistently implemented, Clarke said.
Levels of self-harm were also higher than average and, along with violence, had increased since the last inspection in 2017. Two deaths by suicide had been recorded and recommendations to prevent this happening again had not been implemented, according to Clarke’s letter, which added that inspectors had seen “examples of very poor care” for those at risk of suicide and self harm.
Clarke also found “inadequate” levels of social care for vulnerable prisoners with physical disabilities; accommodation described as “bleak, grubby and overcrowded”; and that a hotline for family and friends of prisoners in crisis to report concerns had not been checked for two weeks leading up to the inspection.
The inspectorate’s survey of prisoners found nearly two-thirds had felt unsafe at some point during their stay at the institution, with over a third feeling unsafe at the time of the inspection.
The urgent notification protocol, which is only used in extreme circumstances, means Gauke must set out plans to improve the prison publicly within 28 days. Prisons in Nottingham, Exeter, Bedford and Birmingham - which the Ministry of Justice took over from the contractor G4S last summer - have all been subject to an urgent notification.
Prisons minister Robert Buckland said it was "clear that much more work is needed".
"We have immediately addressed the issues around prisoner phone support lines to make sure those problems can never happen again, and will publish an action plan within 28 days to reduce violence and self-harm and help turn the prison around," he said.
‘A state of drift and decline’
The inspection was “the latest in a series of disturbing inspections at the prison over the last six years”, Clarke said.
The inspectorate’s last visit to HMP Bristol in March 2017 uncovered “clear evidence of declining standards”, with poor outcomes in safety and the provision of so-called purposeful activity, such as education or exercise.
As a result, HM Prisons and Probation Service implemented a series of special measures, increasing staff and funding for the facility and implementing strategies to crack down on violence and increase access to education.
In a report following the 2017 inspection, Clarke said he thought there was “no reason why, with increases in staff numbers, well-directed investment and consistent leadership from the senior team, Bristol should not deliver better outcomes for prisoners in the future”.
But in his letter to Gauke, Clarke said a series of visits by inspectors this and last month had shown no improvement against any of the four “healthy prison” tests: safety, purposeful activity, respect, and resettlement and rehabilitation.
Clarke said the last time inspectors felt able to report positively on the prison was in 2010. “While Bristol may not have reached the extreme lack of order and crisis seen in some prisons, it has demonstrably been in a state of drift and decline for many years,” he wrote.
“The chronic and seemingly intractable failings at Bristol have now been evident for the best part of a decade,” he said.
“My understanding is that ‘special measures’ are intended to provide support for the governor of a struggling prison. If that is the intention, they have clearly failed at HMP Bristol.
“The investment which has taken place has not yet led to any tangible improvement in outcomes. Some of the efforts to improve have – in reality – been a case of too little, too late: some we saw had only just been implemented, and some were introduced during the inspection itself. On the basis of this latest inspection, I can have no confidence that HMP Bristol will achieve coherent, meaningful or sustained improvement in the future.”
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