Chief prisons inspector blames staffing cuts for violence levels

Information Commissioner orders MoJ to disclose fines dished out to private-sector operators and cost of HMP Birmingham riot

Inside a prison cell. Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

13 Jul 2018

The chief inspector of prisons has issued a damning commentary on the state of jails in England and Wales, describing "some of the most disturbing prison conditions" his team has ever seen, which he said had “no place in an advanced nation”.

In his third annual report in the role, Peter Clarke said the year to April had been a “dramatic period” in which the increased levels of violence seen in recent years had continued, with self-harm and assaults reaching “new highs”.

Clarke said it was “noticeable” that the huge increase in violence across the prison estate had “really only taken place in the past five years, at the time when large reductions in staff numbers were taking effect”.


The report follows last month’s publication of HM Prison & Probation Service’s annual report, which flagged a 13% increase in assaults to 29,485 recorded incidents for the year, and a 23% increase in assaults on staff – up to 8,429.

HMPPS chief executive Michael Spurr also conceded that the service had been forced to pause the implementation of its new Offender Management in Custody staffing model because of “a sharp, unexpected rise in the prison population” during the summer of 2017.

One of the brighter points in the HMPPS report, published on 28 June, had been its success in hitting an officer-recruitment target of 2,500 net additional staff by the end of this year, set by Liz Truss when she was justice secretary in 2016. However the Prison Officers Association has consistently described the Ministry of Justice’s depiction of headcount figures as misleading.

Elsewhere in the chief inspector’s report, Clarke said that while parliamentary scrutiny committees and the National Audit Office encouraged the inspectorate to consider ways that the influence of scrutiny could be increased, inspectors’ recommendations for improvement were often dismissed by institutions.

“The response to inspection reports is often totally inadequate, showing unacceptably low achievement rates and, in some cases, giving a clear impression that the reports have been put aside and ignored,” he said.

“For instance, last year I reported the disturbing fact that, for the first time, the number of our recommendations that had been achieved by prisons fell below those that had not been achieved.

“During the past year, this has not changed and in fact the picture has deteriorated, with the gap between those not achieved and those achieved widening.”

Clarke said there was a “clear correlation” between secure establishments achieving recommendations from the inspectorate and improvements in future performance.

He said he accepted that staff shortages and a lack of investment had “struggled to maintain even basic standards of decency” in recent years. 

“Some prisons, in very difficult circumstances, have made valiant efforts to improve,” he said.

“Others, sadly, have failed to tackle the basic problems of violence, drugs and disgraceful living conditions that have beset so many jails in recent years.

“I have seen instances where both staff and prisoners alike seem to have become inured to conditions that should not be accepted in 21st century Britain.”

The annual report said that during the 12 months to the end of March this year the HM Prisons Inspectorate team had published 77 thematic and inspection reports. Its latest inspection report – published today – focuses on HMP Wandsworth in south London. It found a “long-standing culture of not recording or analysing data to understand what was happening and to drive improvement” and “an obvious gap between the intentions of senior managers and what was actually happening on the wings”.

Among its findings was that an x-ray scanner intended to prevent contraband being brought into the prison had stopped being used, for unclear “reasons”. Elsewhere the report found a totally “inadequate” response to cell call bells, used by inmates to get urgent attention. The report said six prisoners had taken thier own lives at the jail since the previous inspection in 2015.

Separately, the Office of the Information Commissioner has ordered the Ministry of Justice to respond in detail to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on the fines it has imposed on private-sector operators of prisons.

The unnamed requester is also seeking a value for damage caused in a 2016 riot at HMP Birmingham, the cost of repairs, and for clarification on whether the Ministry of Justice or manager G4S was responsible for the cost.

The order followed a complaint from the requester that the MoJ had not responded to their FOI, which had been lodged in October 2017.

The ICO upheld the requester’s complaint and gave the department until early next month to respond in full.


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