Government accused of getting prison policy 'completely wrong' as watchdog issues scathing attack on another jail

Prison governors say ministers have failed to respond quickly enough to the jail safety crisis as inspectors warn of soaring rates of violence and self-harm rates at HMP Exeter

Self-harm was found to have risen 40 per cent, yet the situation was regarded by many staff as 'normal'
Self-harm was found to have risen 40 per cent, yet the situation was regarded by many staff as 'normal'

Prison governors are to criticise ministers for getting their policy on jails “completely wrong” over the past decade – as the watchdog issues an urgent warning about another jail in crisis.

The president of the Prison Governors Association (PGA) will say the government has failed to respond quickly enough to the jail safety crisis, claiming “dis-investment” has contributed to the decline in standards across the estate in England and Wales.

Addressing the PGA’s annual conference on Tuesday, Andrea Albutt will say ministers “do not have the humility to admit that they got their policy completely wrong this decade in our prisons”.

It comes as a report from the Inspectorate of Prisons reveals that violence and self-harm rates at HMP Exeter, which is currently one of the most crowded prisons in England and Wales, have soared in the past two years.

The deterioration in conditions at the jail was so severe that Chief Inspector Peter Clarke felt compelled to invoke “urgent notification” protocol for the second time earlier this year – requiring the government to respond publicly with plans to improve it.

Four such notices have been issued in the space of nine months, with Nottingham, Birmingham and Bedford having all been subject to the same warning since the start of the year.

There had been six self-inflicted deaths at HMP Exeter since the last inspection 21 months before, while self-harm had risen by 40 per cent, the report found. Yet it was observed that the situation had come to be regarded by many staff as “normal”.

The rate of assaults between prisoners at the jail, which is currently operating at 31 per cent above capacity, had meanwhile more than doubled since the previous inspection in August 2016.

Inspectors were particularly appalled to find a young man with mental health issues “effectively living in the middle of a building site, which was noisy and dirty due to the refurbishment work taking place”.

They said staff had not even made the effort to find out his first name.

“In light of the very high levels of vulnerability, self-harm and suicide among prisoners at Exeter, it was shocking to see that cell call bells were routinely ignored by staff,” the report states.

The Howard League for Penal Reform said it was aware of 11 men who have died at the prison since the beginning of 2017.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the charity, said: “The alarming deterioration of Exeter prison is a national scandal, and it raises urgent questions about the prison system as a whole.

“How many people must lose their lives before bold action is taken to put things right?”

Ms Crook urged that reducing the prison population was the only way to prevent more people being “swept into deeper currents of crime, violence and despair”.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, which monitors deaths in custody, said that despite repeated warnings about Exeter prison, a “lack of action” by the prison service and ministers had maintained a trajectory of “rapid decline”.

“Evidence from the inspectorate points to the poor and unsafe environment contributing to the highest rate of self-harm in the prison estate,” she continued.

“Complacency around the safety of prisoners in Exeter and across the prison estate cannot continue. There must be a dramatic reduction in the use of prison to prevent more needless deaths.”

At the PGA conference, Ms Albutt will claim the only way to improve the prison system is if ministers “accept that their austerity strategy has been the catalyst for the current situation”.

She will call for a “massive capital investment” in prison buildings and a reduction in the jail population, and defend Michael Spurr, who will leave his role as chief executive of the prison and probation service in March.

Responding to the PGA speech, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Senior managers in prisons do vital work and we are grateful for their dedication and commitment.

“We acknowledge the ongoing challenges they face and, as the [PGA] president notes, we have taken meaningful action to address them which is starting to yield results.”

Following the inspectorate report, Mr Spurr said they had taken “immediate action” in response to the urgent notification to support the jail’s governor.

“Extra funding has been provided to improve living conditions and carry out maintenance over the past few months, and we’ve strengthened the work being done to tackle violence and stop drugs entering the prison,” he added.

“We’ll be taking more steps in the coming months to further improve conditions at Exeter as set out in our detailed action plan published today.”

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