Independent monitors report that Winchester prison remains an extremely challenging environment in which the impact of violence, drugs and self-harm undermines stability and effective rehabilitation.

In their 2019/20 Annual Report released today, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) presents a mixed picture of conditions and treatment of prisoners at the Victorian jail. They say that, although there have been positive changes, the prison faces continuing pressure in delivering a safe, secure and constructive experience for prisoners.

The IMB report says the year to 31st May 2020 has been challenging for the prison. Although there have been advances, with the prison’s emergence from Special Measures and improvements in education and staff engagement with prisoners, the underlying volatility, typical of so many local prisons, caused by high turnover and inadequate facilities, makes consolidating progress an excessively demanding task.

The report finds that the segregation unit, (CSU), which houses up to 7 of the most challenging prisoners and has been condemned as dungeon-like in successive reports, is unfit and unsafe, and says it is “outrageous and shameful” that the promised new build has not materialised.

Monitors found high levels of assault by prisoners, an excessive amount of self-harm and that disabled people are disadvantaged. The Covid pandemic, while well managed, adds a huge level of complexity to the prison’s operation.

Angus Somerville, Chair of Winchester IMB, said that 2019/20 saw sustained progress across most operational areas, but levels of violence, drug use and self-harm remain unacceptably high

In its Annual Report, the IMB at HMP/YOI Winchester notes:

• HMP/YOI Winchester has one of the highest rates of prisoner-on-prisoner assault, despite more effective case management of the many complex prisoners involved; prisoner assaults on staff have reduced somewhat since last year but are still high compared with many other prisons. Such incidents are caused by only a small number of prisoners.

• Recently, up to 80% of new arrivals declared that they have previously self-harmed and/or made suicide attempts, and/or had suicidal thoughts.

• The staff generally do their utmost, under difficult circumstances, to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely and fairly, but the varied and challenging population, huge turnover, overcrowded conditions, high levels of self-harm, drug abuse and debt, gang rivalries and violence all contribute to making such an objective extraordinarily difficult.

• A major disturbance in August 2019 was a stark reminder that the fabric of the Victorian buildings is not fit for purpose. Ongoing investment to make wings more habitable cannot eradicate the overcrowding or lack of accessibility for disabled prisoners, while the repeated delay to the replacement of the Care and Separation Unit is deplorable.

• The response of the staff to the Covid-19 pandemic was commendable, with no internally generated cases of the disease, and many initiatives to ease prisoners’ situations. Regrettably, the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 has reversed the previous improvements to the daily regime, with prisoners locked up for over 22 hours per day, as staff balanced prisoners’ health and their humane needs.

Mr. Somerville, Chair of Winchester IMB, said:

“2019/20 saw sustained progress across most operational areas, but levels of violence, drug use and self-harm in the prison remain unacceptably high. It is a disgrace that the promised new CSU is no nearer a start date.”

He added: “Regrettably, the necessary restrictions imposed by Covid-19 have reversed the previous improvements to the daily regime, as staff balanced prisoners’ health and humane needs.”

“While the energetic leadership of senior staff has had a positive impact on the culture at Winchester, the prison remains volatile, and continued effort will be needed to improve performance still further and provide the safe, secure and rehabilitative environment the prisoners require.”