On the face of it, shocking findings on fire safety from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Styal Women’s prison in Cheshire were published this week. In their latest annual report covering the year to the end of April, the IMB reveal “a significant fire risk to prisoners” in 16 of the prison's 17 standalone houses each of which accommodates up to 20 women.
The Board say the fire concerns were identified towards the end of the reporting period. A “recent survey” classed all 16 buildings as “red fire risk”. These risks include the existence of false ceilings, and ceilings made of lath and plaster, “which would require expensive and specialist repair to be brought within regulations. Fire doors and surrounds, which are not suitable and not fire resistant, are evident in almost 70% of the houses”.
It's possible that the repairs have been undertaken or at least underway. But if not, should 300 women continue to be put at risk in unsafe accommodation?
Back in March, the head of the prison service told MPs that a thousand cells had been taken out of use across the estate because of a fire safety issue. She explained this was:
“some of our older, originally temporary accommodation that we have been using across the estate. We have had a comprehensive fire safety review across the estate. Following Grenfell tower, we felt that it was absolutely crucial to do this. We have been able to replace those cells by using some of our temporary accommodation and also by maintaining other cells. We have a plan to replace those cells in the longer term, but we wanted to make sure that people were in safe accommodation. We have really stepped up our investigation of fire safety following lessons learnt from Grenfell”.
The Grenfell fire was in 2017 which doesn’t suggest a huge degree of urgency.
I made a Freedom of Information request to see the “comprehensive fire safety review” but was told that there wasn’t one. At least, no overarching Fire Safety Review document existed in the form I’d requested. The Ministry of Justice advised me “on a discretionary basis” that “the safety of our prisoners and staff is paramount” and that since Grenfell “we have undertaken individual building surveys” and that as a result, some buildings have been decommissioned to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff.
From the monthly prison population figures , it doesn’t look like the 16 houses at Styal were among those taken out of use earlier this year. The numbers held at the prison have fluctuated between 360 and 390 since January 2021, with the Operational Capacity constant at 400 - actually a little higher than it was last year, before the fire concerns were raised- if the IMB’s report is accurate.
Fire is not a theoretical risk
in prisons. The Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate said in their annual
report for 2018-19 that “prisons and other custodial secure premises are, and
continue to be, by far the highest risk from a fire safety perspective. They
quoted Home Office statistics showing the highest rates of fire per 1,000
buildings per year were seen in prisons with 5,021 compared to hospitals with 263
and supported/sheltered housing with 158. 9 out of 10 prison fires are thought
to be deliberate.
The most recent figures show a welcome fall in fires in prisons- 650 in 2020-21 down from more than a thousand the year before. There were fewer than 500 up until 2012-13, after which the numbers rocketed- as of course did violence and self-harm.
82 “casualties” were recorded in fires last year, although this includes those with injuries requiring hospital attention, those requiring first aid at the scene and those given advice to have precautionary checks (whether they then take that advice or not). Previously, inspectors have found “evidence that the continuing rate of injuries may be due to drug use and perversely the smoking ban which has resulted in prisoners using increasingly innovative methods for ignition sources.”
The Fire Safety Inspectorate consider fire risk in prisons “to some extent inevitable given the nature of the institutions”. Most of the estate was originally built to much lower fire safety standards and before regulations applied to prisons. HMPPS secured additional funding for 2020/21 to improve fire safety and address the shortfall in automatic fire detection in cells
The inspectors said in their last report they had been working closely with HMPPS and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to drive down the fire risk “where it is reasonably possible”. HMPPS had taken steps to improve fire safety, but “even more concerted action is necessary”. Full audits in nine prisons found “serious enough deficiencies to require formal action in all but two". A Prohibition Notice was served at one establishment and an Enforcement Notice at another. In the other five serious cases, the respective Governors had to produce 28-day action plans to address the non-compliance with the Fire Safety Order identified by the inspection.
The Inspectorate said in their last annual report that “this area of our work will continue to be a high priority in coming years”. Their 2019-20 report is overdue but should be published in the next few days.
It may show whether that priority has been shared by the prison service at prisons like Styal.