HMP Erlestoke inspection finds 'a sense of hopelessness'

By Agencies
November 8, 2017

HMP Erlestoke in Wiltshire had failed to tackle a significant drugs problem – particularly with the synthetic cannabis Spice – which generated violence and bullying and "a sense of hopelessness" among prisoners, according to a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said Erlestoke – a category C training jail with around 500 prisoners, mostly serving life or very long sentences – had clearly deteriorated since it was last inspected four years ago.

However, Mr Clarke added, a relatively new management team was enthusiastic about improving the jail. HMIP recommended that the prison should tackle its drugs problem as a priority.

Safety in the prison was not good enough, Mr Clarke said. ‘Much of the violence and bullying… was, in our view, linked to a significant drug problem, and yet the prison lacked an effective drug strategy. Work to confront and reduce violence was weak and uncoordinated, and staff confidence and competence in ensuring reasonable challenge and supervision needed improvement.’ Inspectors found that inexperienced staff often worked on "challenging" wings without support from experienced colleagues.

Many prisoners trying to tackle drug addiction told inspectors that "the availability of drugs, coupled with the recent smoking ban, had contributed to a widespread sense of hopelessness, and that it was difficult to maintain recovery in an atmosphere where so many other prisoners were regularly under the influence of Spice.

"Prisoners also told us that the price of Spice was around half of that for illicit tobacco, which encouraged more Spice use than we have seen in similar prisons recently. There were frequent medical emergencies, some very serious, resulting from Spice use, partly due to prisoners smoking Spice without diluting it with tobacco, as is common practice elsewhere."

Other priorities to be tackled, inspectors said, were:

  • "Chaotic" arrangements for receiving new prisoners into the jail. New arrivals were often left without basic items, such as a kettle or pillow. Prisoners had to request to be taken to a separate clothing store for basic items like socks, only to find there were none available.
  • Better promotion of equality – inspectors found Erlestoke had "a poor understanding of the needs and perceptions of prisoners from minority groups."
  • Ensuring prisoners attended activities. Inspectors found 23 per cent of prisoners locked in cell during the working day, with significant numbers of others not doing anything purposeful. There was also "unacceptably poor punctuality or non-attendance of those meant to be at work or training."

Inspectors did, however, note that Erlestoke remained a reasonably respectful prison and the external environment was good. Health care provision was improving and prisoners were more positive than in the previous inspection about the food.

Peter Clarke said, "Overall, and despite our criticisms, we do report on much that was positive in the prison. The management team was relatively new and evidenced an enthusiasm to make improvements. There was a sense that with a little more organisation and consistency, and with a determination to ensure policies and rules are complied with, the prison could become much better quite quickly. Many told us of the potential they saw in the institution. Improved structures of accountability and supervision would also help in sustaining improvement."

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of HM Prison & Probation Service, said, “As the Chief Inspector points out there is much positive work being done by staff at Erlestoke. The supply and use of illicit psychoactive drugs has undermined safety in the prison. The Governor is working with partners including the Police, and treatment agencies, to address this issue as a priority. We will use the recommendations in this report to improve performance at Erlestoke over the coming months.”

Commenting on the report, Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said, “It is a sign of how bad our prison system has become when issues that are traditionally associated with local jails – dirt, disrepair, violence, bullying, drugs and self-injury – are now problems faced by training prisons such as Erlestoke.

“As a training prison, Erlestoke is supposed to provide purposeful activity, but inspectors found that one in four men was locked in his cell during the working day and many other prisoners had nothing useful to do. This is not going to help them to become law-abiding citizens on release.

“Ministers must act boldly and decisively to stop the prison system deteriorating further. By reducing the prison population, we can save lives, protect staff and prevent more people being swept into deeper currents of crime, violence and despair.”

Read the report on HMP Erlestoke here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons

* Howard League for Penal Reform

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