Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Worst Prison Inspection in Four Years - Does Anyone Care?

Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick says today’s report on Brinsford Young Offender Institution is the worst since he took over in 2010. That’s saying something since he’s made   damning criticisms of among others, Pentonville, Feltham and Oakwood.  The Brinsford findings are indeed shocking, more so since for the first time the report contains some photographs of the squalid conditions. But the report has received relatively little media attention, drowned out it seems by coverage of Cardiff University’s violence study. Whether or not a fall in numbers showing up at A and E is a good indicator for levels of violence in society, it’s almost certainly not for violence in prisons. More than 10% of the young people surveyed by the Inspectors said they had been hit, kicked or assaulted at Brinsford compared to 8% in the last inspection in 2011. 

I visited Brinsford in November 2012 with colleagues from the T2A Alliance when I was preparing a report on young adults in custody. I noted that the buildings were scruffy “but that atmosphere in the prison was calm and positive. Young men were moving to their activities in an orderly but relaxed way, with staff engaging positively.”  It looks like things have gone downhill.  Why might that be?

By coincidence on the day we visited, the results of the competitions for the running of nine prisons were announced by the MoJ. Governors at Brinsford had been fearing industrial action by the POA should the establishment have been chosen to be part of a future round of competition. As it was, they told us they would have to make cuts but without the threat of privatisation.

MoJ figures show that the cost per place had already fallen by almost 8% between 2010-11 and 2012-13; we will not have figures for the last financial year until the autumn. But it seems certain that that resources were further reduced and that when the Inspectors visited in November last year there were fewer staff on the landings.

Today’s report spells out the consequences. Too many evening and weekend recreational sessions were cancelled because officers were redeployed to other areas; nurses reported that prison officers were not always available to provide supervision during medication administration times;  the inconsistent allocation of custody officers to the inpatient unit meant that most patients were spending only a few hours out of their cell each day; and , significantly in the light of Chris Grayling’s assurances that prisoners don’t need books to be sent in to them , the young men  had inadequate access to the library because of the lack of available prison officers. Library staff were frequently unable to run activities they had planned.

Many will say that prisons must cut their costs along with every other part of government. The problem is that even before any cuts prisons like Brinsford were unable to meet required standards. Back in 2005 Inspectors found an establishment that was struggling to provide appropriate levels of safety, respect and even basic cleanliness.  Two years later despite the critical 2005 report, managers had failed to remedy many of the deficits in safety and respect that inspectors considered were within their control. In 2009 Brinsford was not able to provide a sufficiently safe and purposeful environment for young adults and in 2011 this was still the case.  

Given its history how could a cut in resources produce anything but the catalogue of failure reported today?

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