Some rare good news about prisons last week. HMP Altcourse – the G4S local prison in Liverpool was found by the Inspectorate, in November last year, to be providing “fundamentally decent treatment and conditions despite facing the same challenges as other local prisons.” The contrast is particularly stark with the city’s Walton jail where two months earlier the inspectors had found an abject failure … to offer a safe, decent and purposeful environment.” There’s likely to be a good deal to learn about how Altcourse has managed to reduce violence and self-harm year on year, and to bring about a considerable decline in the use of new psychoactive substances by prisoners. This is certainly the line that G4S are pushing- pleased no doubt that one of their establishments is in the headlines for the right reasons. Staff and managers certainly deserve credit for taking positive initiatives to try to deal with poor behaviour and drug misuse among a demanding population of prisoners.
But in identifying lessons for broader application in the prison system, it will be important to look closely at the inspectors’ findings at Altcourse and, perhaps as importantly, at what prisoners themselves have had to say about their care, conditions and experience.
Commendably, inspections always include a comprehensive survey of prisoners’ views on a variety of matters, using a large enough sample to produce a reliable representation of the population as a whole. The data from surveys is used to compare what prisoners say about conditions in a particular establishment from one inspection to the next; and how prisoners’ experiences match up in different jails of the same type. The survey questionnaires have recently been revised making these comparisons more difficult than in the past. But setting the 2017 Altcourse results beside those from the last inspection there in 2014, raises some puzzling questions.
Take safety. Four years ago, 12% of prisoners said they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. In November it was up to 21%. That’s still a lower level than most local prisons – the proportion was 34% at Walton- but the direction of travel at Altcourse doesn’t look good. In 2014, 10% of prisoners said they’d been hit, kicked or assaulted by other prisoners. In 2017 18% said they had been physically assaulted. The percentage of prisoners saying they’d been assaulted by staff doubled from 3 to 7%. While not all of these trends are statistically significant, there seems a clear finding that more prisoners at Altcourse experienced physical or verbal abuse from other prisoners in 2017 than at other local prisons or at the same prison in 2014. In the light of this, it’s surprising perhaps that Inspectors ranked safety outcomes reasonably good this time – they weren’t sufficiently good four years ago.
What about drugs? In 2014 a third of prisoners reported that it was easy or very easy to get illegal drugs. Last year 47% of those who had a drug problem – a sub set of the sample - said this was the case. Comparison is tricky but what does seem clear is that between the inspections, the proportion of prisoners reporting that they had developed a problem with illicit drugs since being in the prison more than doubled from 8% to 17%. That doesn't look like much of an improvement.
Finally in terms of regime, the number of prisoners who said they spent 10 hours a day outside their cell on weekdays was much higher in 2014 (34%) than last year (16%). This jars a bit with the inspectors claim that there were sufficient activity places to occupy all men, with most in full-time activities involving nine to 10 hours out of their cells, sometimes more.
There may well be good reasons why the “clear signs of improvement” identified by the inspectors are not always reflected in the views of prisoners. But where there are inconsistencies the challenge must be for the prison to explain them. David Lammy’s mantra “explain or reform” could have value in using data to inform prison improvement as it might in reducing racial disparities in criminal justice.
There’s a challenge too for the inspectorate to show more their workings more carefully- how they integrate the various sources of information and observation into a set of judgements about an institution. And what the thresholds are for different ratings on their healthy prison tests. At Altcourse a quarter of prisoners say they have been prevented from making a complaint and fewer than half of those who make a complaint think its dealt with fairly. That may be a better score than other prisons -but is it really a reasonably good outcome?