I welcome last week’s White Paper on prison safety and reform in which the Secretary of State outlines proposals to tackle a range of serious issues regularly raised by Independent Monitoring Boards in their Annual Reports. It is right that there is to be ‘greater bite to the inspection regime with action taken swiftly and seriously where prisons are failing in their duties’. IMB members have regularly expressed great frustration that their real concerns about the state of prisons has been largely ignored over the years and that the National Offender Management Service has failed to adequately respond to the serious issues particularly in relation to staff shortages. This is especially pertinent given the recent events at HMPs Lewes, Bedford and Pentonville.
In their 2015-2016 report IMB Lewes stated:
‘The main theme of this report is the unpredictable regime delivered throughout 2015. On February 9th 2015 an interim regime was introduced with the intention of providing a sustainable and predictable regime to maximise attendance at activities and ensure a safe, secure and decent environment for prisoners and staff.
Board members have noted a significant change in prisoners’ attitudes to each other and to staff over the past year or so. This tends to portray itself in a more aggressive and demanding manner. In an overcrowded prison with fewer staff this increased negative behaviour often puts added pressure on the staff’.
In their recent letter to the Minister the Lewes IMB stated:
‘Since April 2016 the regime has been affected even further by staff shortages. Violent incidents against staff and prisoners are often recorded and many of these result in prisoners being taken under restraint to the Segregation Unit…. An increase in the number of assaults has meant that there are more transfers to outside hospitals which, in turn, increases bed watches and escorts, impacting further on staffing levels.’
In its report for 2105 – 2016, IMB Pentonville made clear that:
‘In an attempt to maintain staffing ratios ‘temporary regimes’ have regularly been in operation. Prisoners would not know until Monday morning the pattern for the week to come…. We are concerned about the impact this has on those prisoners who are too frightened or overwhelmed to ask for help from unfamiliar staff, and we recognise that this instability is equally unsettling and unsatisfactory for officers.’
In August 2016, IMB Bedford wrote to the Minister:
‘to express our concern at an alarming decline in safety within the prison over the past six months. There have been sharp increases in the numbers of assaults and serious assaults on prisoners and staff. This has been accompanied by a rise in the prevalence of self-harm and two deaths in custody along with a number of incidents of attempted hanging. Prisoners have begun asking us to recommend that the prison be shut down as the management appear unable to offer a predictable regime due to chronic staff shortages. Staff have also voiced fears for their own safety. It is our view that the lack of a consistent regime, long periods of lock-up, overcrowding, shortages of kit for prisoners and the prevalence of gangs bullying other prisoners for canteen, and trading drugs, are significant factors in the recent decline in safety.’
IMB Bedford are due to publish their latest annual report on 14 November.
Notes to editors:
- HMP Bedford and HMP Lewes are both Category B, Resettlement Prisons. HMP Pentonville is Category B men’s local prison.
- Independent Monitoring Boards provide a weekly monitoring presence in every prison in England and Wales.
- They have a duty to inform the Secretary of State of any concern they have and to report annually to the Secretary of State on how well the establishment has met the standards and requirements placed on it and what impact these have on those in custody.
- John Thornhill is the President of the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards.
- Contact the IMB Secretariat for press queries.