Portland 2018/19 annual report: Weaknesses in the fair and humane treatment of prisoners

Lack of post-release accommodation ‘sets people up to fail’ say independent monitors

Prisoners at HMP/YOI Portland are not consistently treated fairly, and physical conditions in cells and on the older wings make it difficult to argue that they are always treated humanely and with care and compassion, according to a report by the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board.

The report also sets out problems with prisoners’ preparation for release.

The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Portland has produced its annual report for 2018-19 to the Ministry of Justice, looking at whether prisoners are treated humanely and fairly, and prepared well for release.

In general, the IMB found that throughout that year, attempts by the prison to improve matters at Portland were patchy and inconsistent, or were thwarted, in part due to insufficient staff numbers or experience at every level.

Like many other prisons, Portland suffers from the ingress of drugs, though progress was made during the year towards stemming this.  It also houses many prisoners with mental health issues, partly due to lack of more suitable provision.

Fair treatment?

The report finds that poor attitudes towards diversity have not been consistently challenged at Portland. However, related complaints are taken seriously by the Governor, who has shown himself willing to take action where evidence exists.

Prisoner complaints about intimidation and excessive use of force by staff have been hard for the IMB to address, due to poor record keeping by the prison. There have been instances where staff have neglected to switch on body-worn video cameras, recording equipment in CCTV cameras has failed, or required use of force paperwork has been incomplete. The resulting lack of evidence has hampered the following-up of complaints by the Board.

The IMB found an emphasis on marking poor behaviour rather than promoting and rewarding good behaviour and positive change.

Humane treatment?

The IMB report found that a humane and productive environment is difficult to achieve at Portland due to the physical conditions and limitations of the old prison buildings.  In these, there are cells where toilets are not screened, basic furniture is lacking, the temperature is impossible to control, standards of cleanliness can be poor, and facilities on the landings are inadequate with showers often out of order; there is no decent space for conversations and reviews.

Prisoners were too often locked up for long hours in the cells, with education, work and exercise activities curtailed or cancelled due to staff shortages. Security limitations around the prison have often led to comments by prisoners that although it is a Category C prison, Portland is “more like a Category B” (higher security) establishment.

Care and concern

The report notes the many improvements made to the support and management of complex prisoners – those with emotional and mental health issues, subject to Assessment in Care, Custody and Teamwork (ACCT – a monitoring system for those in danger of self harm) and prisoners self-isolating due to safety concerns. It also notes many positive examples of care, concern and support for prisoners from staff of all grades and disciplines. The introduction of Barnados to run the Visits Centre has improved the experience for prisoners and their families.

However there has been evidence of unsatisfactory behaviour towards prisoners from a minority of staff. This reflects poorly on the prison.

Preparation for release

The IMB reports that failings by Community Rehabilitation Companies and the National Probation Service at the time of sentencing has led to prisoners not having their risks or treatment needs identified – which in turn means that Portland cannot fulfil its primary role as a resettlement prison, so prisoners are being released into the community without having reduced their risk of reoffending. Offender Management staff in Portland have been doing positive work to assess risk and move prisoners on to prisons better suited to address their offending behaviour.

The Board found work undertaken in prisoners’ employment and education,  and also resettlement and rehabilitation services in Portland to prepare prisoners for release to be good. However, the lack of accommodation provision around the country means that prisoners often cannot take advantage of early release dates or are released with no fixed abode.

Chair Anna Knight said: “Homelessness on release makes it difficult for some to stick to their licence conditions, which means an early return to prison. The way the system works at the moment sets people up to fail.”