HMP Ashfield, just 8 miles from Bath, has received another highly complimentary report from the Independent Monitoring Board, only a year after an equally positive report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons. The IMB’s report, published on 20 October, concludes that “it is a well-run prison which houses prisoners safely and securely but also with dignity, humanity and respect”.
The Board, made up of local unpaid volunteers who give up their time to monitor conditions inside the jail 52 weeks a year, also comments that it “continues to be impressed by the overall standards of dedication and professionalism shown by both SERCO and contracted staff at all levels”.
Unusually, at a time when the media has focused public attention on the fact that the prison system as a whole is experiencing unprecedented difficulties caused by overcrowding, staffing shortages, deteriorating premises, the illegal use of “spice” and increased volatility and violence, the IMB has reported that Ashfield has been spared these problems and is performing very well against almost all external tests and measures.
The Board expressed concerns in 2015 about the suitability of the education and training programme and about the difficulties Ashfield was encountering in being allocated sufficient prisoners who could engage with its sex offender treatment programmes, but these have largely been resolved. Much good work is now being undertaken to reduce re-offending and rehabilitate prisoners who have usually served long sentences. At any one time around 90% of Ashfield’s residents are serving sentences of four years or more with a high number of “lifers”. Very few are released directly from Ashfield itself. The vast majority transfer towards the end of their sentences to specialist resettlement prisons or to “open” conditions.
Chair of the Board, Caroline Thompson, said that “a mark of Ashfield’s success is that many prisoners comment to external researchers and to Board members ourselves that it is the best prison they have lived in. Prison staff treat them fairly and they feel motivated to engage with the range of programmes and vocational training courses on offer. Any complaints about having to share cells because of the limited availability of single occupancy cells are tempered by the fact that they recognise they enjoy a range of facilities that is superior to that found in many other prisons. They also appreciate the fact that there are various forums in which their voice is genuinely listened to by the prison’s senior management team”.
The result is a calm and positive environment in which the Board comments that prisoners exhibit a high degree of good behaviour, self-discipline and compliance with the regime. In a recent independent survey, prisoner satisfaction levels placed Ashfield second in a group of 44 equivalent prisons. Some black and ethnic minority prisoners had complained to HMIP in 2015 that they received less favourable treatment but the Board concluded from its own research that, although there was relatively little evidence to support these claims, the prison was to be commended on its positive response and its willingness to engage directly with prisoner representatives to address them.
The Board noted in its Report that, by prison standards, the modern accommodation was very good and that prisoners took pride in keeping the environment clean, tidy and free of litter and graffiti. Concerns were expressed about the standard of shower and personal laundry facilities but the prison was now attempting to address these. The Board believed that prisoners received a very good standard of nutritious catering and of medical care. Both of these were particularly important given that around 40% are registered disabled and most are significantly older than is the norm, many technically of retirement age.
The prison had also coped well in containing a “swine flu” pandemic in March 2016. Nevertheless, concern was expressed by the Board about “stubbornly long” waiting lists for dental treatment, though progress was being made in resolving this issue. Similarly, problems identified a year ago with unsatisfactory arrangements for dispensing medication had been resolved.