Prison conditions ‘most disturbing ever seen’ with staff now accustomed to jails not fit for 21st century, watchdog says

May Bulman

Prisoners in England and Wales are enduring the “most disturbing conditions ever seen” as authorities fail to take action to curb soaring levels of violence and self-harm in jails, the chief inspector of prisons has warned in a damning new report.

“Repeated patterns of failure” have led to a point where staff are inured to conditions that have “no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century”, Peter Clarke warned.

Violence, drug use and self-harm all remain issues, with assaults and self-harm having reached a record high in the past year, the report states.

This is despite Mr Clarke’s call for ministers to address the issues as a “matter of urgency” in his annual report a year ago.

Politicians and campaigners warned that the prison system had reached the point of “emergency” and said the chief inspector’s warnings of rapid deterioration in jails must not be allowed to “fall on deaf ears”.

Speaking at the report’s launch, Mr Clarke said: “I realise that in recent years many prisons, short of staff and investment, have struggled to maintain even basic standards of safety and decency. Some prisons, in very difficult circumstances, have made valiant efforts to improve.

“Others, sadly, have failed to tackle the basic problems of violence, drugs and disgraceful living conditions that have beset so many jails in recent years. I have seen instances where both staff and prisoners alike seem to have become inured to conditions that should not be accepted in 21st century Britain.”

There was an “obvious” correlation between the significant increase in violence across the prison estate over the past five years and the large reductions in staff numbers and resources that has taken effect, he said.

The report found that levels of violence had continued to increase in prisons, with assaults hitting record highs last year and continuing to become less safe.

Self-harm among inmates also hit the highest levels on record, with the number of reported incidents rising from 40,161 in 2016 to 44,651 in 2017 – an increase of 11 per cent.

Mr Clarke welcomed a gradual decline in self-inflicted deaths, which peaked in 2016, but said there were still repeated patterns of failure in far too many cases.

He said he was particularly concerned at the failure by staff to carry out “basic operation procedures” such as responding promptly to cell call bells.

“Whether this is a cultural or leadership issue, it needs to be looked at carefully,” he said. “There is a clear link between cell call bells and self-harm, and in the worst cases suicide.”

The report also described a “totally unacceptable” situation in which many thousands of prisoners find themselves forced to share cells designed to hold only one prisoner.

These were used as their “bedroom, dining room and lavatory” despite inadequately screened, dirty toilets without lids, it stated.

“How is it that in a prison, which is one place there is no shortage of labour to clean places up, can become so unhygienic?” Mr Clarke asked.

“The conditions are so terrible that staff seem to have lost the ability to recognise them as being good or being bad – it’s just become the norm.”

Despite the government’s ambition to improve training and education by getting inmates out of cells, many prisoners remain locked up in them for up to 22 hours a day.

One in five prisoners told inspectors they were out of their cells for less than two hours a day, while just 16 per cent were unlocked for more than 10 hours.

The report also highlighted the ready availability of drugs in too many prisons, with 13 per cent of prisoners acquiring a drug habit while they were detained. Mr Clarke said this was “shockingly high”.

Too many prisons still lack a comprehensive strategy to reduce drug supply, with modern technology to detect and deter drugs – which has been proven to be effective – being introduced too slowly, the report stated.

Responding to the report, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said: “The crisis in our prisons has now become an emergency – as Labour has long warned it would. The Tories’ ideological decision to axe thousands of prison officers and slash prison budgets is to blame for this unprecedented failure.

“The government must now take responsibility for some of the worst prison conditions that Inspectors have ever seen. Instead of tinkering around at the edges, the government needs to outline an emergency plan and new funds to make our prisons safe and humane.”

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said no public service in England and Wales had deteriorated as “rapidly and as profoundly” in recent years as the prison system.

“This excoriating report is yet another reminder of the scale of the chaos in overcrowded and under-resourced jails that are failing everyone,” he said. “The chief inspector’s warnings must not be allowed to fall on deaf ears, and what matters now is how the government responds.”

He added: “The prison population is falling, and ministers have rightly indicated that they want to see fewer short prison sentences being imposed. Scrapping plans to build more prisons for women is another step in the right direction. But the corner will not be turned unless ministers take further action to reduce demand on the system, protect staff and save lives. Building more prisons for men will only lead to more prisoners, more problems and more crime.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, echoed the comments.

“The findings of this report put Britain to shame,” he said. “We should not tolerate a situation in a civilised society where thousands of prisoners are forced to share cells designed for one, eating their meals next to an unscreened toilet; where violence and self-harm have risen exponentially; and where a fifth of prisoners spend less than two hours a day out of their cell.”

The report comes after the justice secretary David Gauke announced a £30m “improvement package” aimed at bringing jails “back up to standards” – which campaigners welcomed but said fell short of tackling problems facing the prison system.

Deborah Coles, Director of charity Inquest said it was "deplorable" that in more than 90 per cent of men’s prisons the inspectorate found issues with self-harm and suicide management, which she said was reflective of the continually high death toll.

"These dangers are compounded by the systemic failure to act on recommendations made by coroners, inspections and monitoring bodies to prevent future deaths. If such complacency and neglect was found in any other setting, the institution would be shut down," she said.

"Until there is a dramatic reduction in the use of prison, a redirection of resources into community alternatives, as well as a clear and enforceable system of accountability which protects prisoners, then needless deaths and harms will continue.”

Michael Spurr, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, conceded that prisons had had a “challenging twelve months” and said while the inspectors had recognised “particularly acute problems” in a number of prisons, he was pleased that they had also recognised progress and good outcomes in others.

“Our new scrutiny and assurance unit is helping to ensure that good practice is shared among prisons and that recommendations from inspectors are acted upon,” he added. “Many challenges remain in the coming year but the increased funding for frontline operations and investment in the estate will help us to better tackle issues such as drugs and poor living conditions.

“We have a robust and coherent strategy to drive up standards and I’m confident that we will make significant progress over the next 12 months.”