HMP Dartmoor a ‘safe, clean and well-managed’ prison

The Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Dartmoor, a Category C prison for up to 640 adult male prisoners, has published its Annual Report for 2015/6. Despite encountering many of the challenges faced by all prisons, including a large rise in prisoner usage of new psychotic substances (NPS), and mobile phones, the Board concludes that good staff-prisoner relationships have prevailed and that staff at all levels have been working professionally and effectively.

The report records additional challenges faced by Dartmoor this year as one of the government’s pilot prisons for its no-smoking policy. When this began there were outbursts of sometimes serious uncooperative behaviour by large groups of prisoners in several pilot prisons. The fact that major disturbance did not occur at Dartmoor, the board believes, was largely a result of the professional way prisoner behaviour was dealt with by staff and the effective prisoner-staff relations which have been achieved in the prison. The report recognises that staff often work under extremely difficult and challenging circumstances and commends the professional way prisoners are managed.

The report also describes how a new integrated regime, where prisoners live and work alongside each other not separated by the nature of their offence, has been consolidated during the year. It notes the move to integration has ‘improved the general behaviour and atmosphere of the prison’. Dartmoor is one of the few prisons in the country to adopt such a regime. It also praises the prison for continuing improvements to decor and cleanliness; a year of further strengthened staff-management relationships which it sees as a prime reason for low levels of staff sickness; and continuing efforts to diversify prisoner employment and provide good quality educational opportunities.

The report also draws attention to failings, some of which had been outlined in previous years. Apart from criticising the seeming ready availability of drugs and NPS, the report records that the Board has regularly observed about a third of prisoners remaining on wings during weekday working time and has ‘struggled to understand the reasons given why this should be so’. It concludes that further work is needed if prisoner employment is to be ‘universal and full-time’.

The Board has also been concerned that the Offender Manager Unit, which manages prisoners’ sentence plans, has been working for a further year under extreme pressure caused by heavy caseloads and under-staffing. It draws attention to the fact that many prisoners are sent to Dartmoor without a fully completed offender assessment system, (OASys), or even without any at all, a national problem which further challenges an already overworked department. This has led to mistakes and deficiencies in vital Parole Board reports.

The report also highlights another challenge faced more specifically by HMP Dartmoor. With a larger population of elderly prisoners than most other south west prisons, the prison has experienced additional financial consequences over and above those prisons with a younger demographic , when hospital visits, hospital admission bedwatches and even end of life care stretch already limited resources. This has led to regime closures with prisoners behind their cell doors longer than is necessary.

The report finally mentions two issues faced by the prison last year over which the Board had serious concerns. Firstly it was unhappy with the aftercare afforded to witnesses of the tragic death in custody of a young man who was murdered in the kitchens.

Secondly, the report expressed major concern over a prisoner transferred from another prison where he had been held in its segregation unit on dirty protest continuously for 84 days before spending a further 86 days in the care and separation unit (CSU) at HMP Dartmoor, again on continuous dirty protest. Although the Board recognised that HMP Dartmoor had managed this prisoner with ‘professionalism, integrity, great patience and forbearance,’ it took serious issue over the effects this had on staff and other prisoners, and with the way this prisoner had been managed over many years in the national prison system. This serious concern was twice escalated, as Boards are required to by statute, to the Deputy Director of Custody South West (DDC), then to the national Director of Public Prisons and finally the Minister of Justice herself. Apart from an initial response from the DDC, the major concerns of the Board were neither responded to, nor even acknowledged, by either the office of the Director of Public Prisons or of the Ministry of Justice. The Board felt these oversights called into serious question the validity of their work as independent prison monitors.