Conditions for prisoners in HMP Brixton have deteriorated, says IMB

Conditions for prisoners in HMP Brixton have deteriorated over the year. In its annual report, the Independent Monitoring Board finds – for the third year running – that there are not enough staff to ensure safety and decency. Drugs and mobile phones are readily available and assaults on prisoners and staff have increased. This is not an environment that gives men a fair chance of putting their lives back together and learning skills for employment.

On current staffing levels, basic safety cannot always be ensured. So education and training get disrupted. Some prisoners refuse to leave their cells to go to training, attend drug recovery programmes or even to collect meals. This is neither decent nor humane. As a ‘reform agenda’ it is a failure.

Officers are regularly moved from wing to wing to provide minimal security cover, often at the expense of essential tasks like sentence planning. This means they are less likely to recognise dangerous patterns of behaviour and head off trouble, or intervene with support where it is needed. It has not been possible to do enough cell searching. The number of violent incidents and medical emergencies has increased because of the very high level of drug use, particularly with the unpredictable effects of psychoactive drugs (‘spice’). Officers have been working in a volatile and sometimes dangerous environment, and the Board recognises that some have gone over and above what is required to provide security and decency where they can.

By the summer it was impossible to maintain a full resettlement programme and lockdowns were common from early July. A reduced regime, introduced at the beginning of August to provide a minimum level of consistency, is continuing, with no prospect of a resettlement regime soon. So for months, even men who want to engage with resettlement programmes have been locked in their cells for at least 18 hours per day. Others are unlocked for two hours per day at most. This is not consistent with decency, with rehabilitation, or international standards. These standards, the Nelson Mandela rules, are set out in a United Nations Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which the UK has agreed.

There nonetheless have been many achievements over the year, large and small. Job fairs and qualifications gained have meant that some men have left with a secure job, or a much better chance of going straight. Other men have been protected from self harm or cared for when they were out of it on drugs. A prison council has been set up, deployment of staff improved, and intelligence gathering sharpened up. But officers and management have lacked the resources to provide a real opportunity for all the hundreds of men who pass through Brixton each year.

The IMB’s remit is to monitor the prison to satisfy itself as to the humane and just treatment of those in custody, and the adequacy of programmes preparing them for release. The Board regrets that neither condition has been consistently met this year.