Thursday, 31 May 2018

A Tale of Two Cities

Today’s inspection report on HMP Leicester gave a hint that prisons might perhaps be turning a corner. Outcomes on all four of the Inspectorate’s healthy prison tests have improved since 2015, and while safety is still not sufficiently good, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement are now all reasonable.  Could this show that belated and inadequate as it may be, recent investment in prison staff is beginning to have a positive effect?

Any optimism about the system as a whole was dashed a few hours after the Leicester report was published when Chief Prison Inspector Peter Clarke decided that the failures to tackle safety issues at HMP Exeter were serious enough to put the Justice Secretary publicly on notice to fix them. We’ve become all too used to the rocketing rates of violence and self-harm, easy availability of drugs and poor living conditions in local prisons. But what’s worrying in the letter Clarke published today was that additional staff had not (yet at any rate) started to improve the dire situation he reported on in 2016. 

Clarke was shocked by the failure of prison officers to answer cell call bells: “Given that the prison is now much better staffed, this was inexcusable.  Inspectors saw bells going unanswered even when staff were doing nothing else.” He is aggrieved too at how little progress had been made on his recommendations from last time- compared to Leicester where inspection and Ombudsman findings seem have driven the improvement agenda.

So what are the lessons?  First, ministers’ words about reducing short- term prison sentences need to be turned into action. We don’t yet know how many prisoners at Exeter were serving short sentences when the inspectors visited last week but in 2016 18% of prisoners were serving 6 months or less and a further 5% between 6 months and a year. Diverting at least some of these to community-based supervision could see disproportionate benefit in grossly overcrowded local prisons- if the places are not back filled by long termers.

Second, ministers and the prison service need to get ahead of the game on prison conditions. I’ve been impressed by Prisons Minister Rory Stewart so far but not so much with him telling the Guardian that he was “grateful to the chief inspector for identifying the urgent attention required at Exeter.” After the promises he made to the Justice Committee about Liverpool four months ago and the first Urgent Notification at Nottingham, why has he himself not taken steps to identify what’s needed and ensure remedial action is taken? After all he has started a "back to basics" campaign , prioritising making prisons "clean and decent, with a proper broken windows policy".

Presumably he’ll be on a train to the west country, but he well knows micro managing isn’t a sustainable way of fixing this.  But given his commitment to sorting out the basics, he should make it his business to know- or at least ensure that Prison Service chiefs know-  the extent of squalid cells, blocked lavatories, broken glass and furniture.  It would be a start.  

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