The chief inspector of prisons has issued an urgent notification to the government after a surprise inspection of HMP Bristol found “chronic and intractable failings” including high levels of violence and self-harm.
This is the fifth time that Peter Clarke, the jails watchdog, has invoked the emergency protocol.
Established in late 2017 in response to growing concerns about the crisis in prisons in England and Wales, the urgent notification, or UN, requires the justice secretary to set out publicly within 28 days how the situation will be improved. So far this has been used to highlight poor conditions at prisons in Nottingham, Exeter, Birmingham and Bedford.
HMP Bristol, which currently holds about 520 male prisoners, had been a cause for concern ever since an inspection two years ago resulted in the jail being put in special measures. Visits by the watchdog in May and June exposed high levels of violence, squalid living conditions and poor training and education.
The inspectors drew attention to a series of problems including nearly two-thirds of prisoners saying they had felt unsafe at some point during their stay, and levels of violence and self-harm being much higher than the average for local prisons.
“Despite the fact there had been two self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection, recommendations following investigations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman had not been implemented,” the watchdog found. “Inspectors saw examples of very poor care for prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm.”
Meanwhile, a hotline for family and friends to call and report their concerns about prisoners in crisis, had not been checked by staff for the two weeks before the visit. Inspectors said that “most accommodation remained bleak and grubby with too many overcrowded cells”.
Although there were enough places for all prisoners to engage in education, training or work for at least part of the day, only half of prisoners had been allocated to an activity and of these on average only about half attended.
Explaining his decision to invoke the UN, Mr Clarke said the “chronic and seemingly intractable failings at Bristol” had been evident for the best part of a decade. He added that HMP Bristol “has demonstrably been in a state of drift and decline for many years”.
“My understanding is that ‘special measures’ are intended to provide support for the governor of a struggling prison,” he said. “If that is the intention, they have clearly failed at HMP Bristol. The investment which has taken place has not yet led to any tangible improvement in outcomes. Some of the efforts to improve have, in reality, been a case of too little, too late.”
In response to the inspector’s warnings Robert Buckland, prisons minister, said he knew Bristol faced “serious challenges” and that the government was already providing additional support.
“That has resulted in more prison officers and reductions in drug use, but some of the chief inspector’s findings make very difficult reading and it is clear that much more work is needed,” he said.