Safety a major concern in HMP WInchester, inspectors find

By Agencies
January 8, 2020

An inspection of HMP Winchester (a category B local prison and category C resettlement unit on the same site) in the summer of 2019 was disappointing, with high levels of violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in the local prison.

The smaller resettlement unit was assessed as reasonably good for safety and respect. However, purposeful activity – work, training and education – was poor on both sites.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, published a report on the inspection at the Hampshire prison in June and July 2019.

In the local prison, inspectors found significant deterioration since the previous inspection in 2016. In the category C unit, though purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning had both deteriorated, inspectors found some evidence that the decline had been arrested and some tentative improvements made.

Winchester was not safe enough, Mr Clarke said. Violence remained rare on the category C site but had increased markedly in the local prison, particularly against staff. Fortunately, most recorded incidents were not classified as serious.

Almost a quarter of prisoners said they felt unsafe and well over half reported feeling victimised. Use of force by staff had increased since 2016, which the prison attributed in part to the inexperience of their staff. Special accommodation was used too frequently and the segregation unit remained “a dismal place”. The mandatory positive drug testing rate had fallen from 30 per cent to 16 per cent, suggesting that some supply reduction initiatives were having an impact, but 59 per cent of prisoners nonetheless thought it was easy to obtain drugs in the prison.

The lack of improvement in work to reduce self-harm remained a significant concern for inspectors. Recorded incidents of self-harm had doubled since 2016, leading to levels higher than any other local prison in the country. Seven prisoners had taken their own lives since the last inspection, three of these in the previous 12 months. The prison’s response to recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following investigations was not robust.

However, most prisoners indicated that they could turn to staff for help and keyworker arrangements had been introduced successfully. Inspectors highlighted the comprehensive recording by keyworkers of prisoners’ behaviour and progress as good practice.

Cells on the category C unit were well equipped. In the local prison living conditions were not as good, and overcrowding and poorly equipped and damaged cells were common.

Time out of cell for prisoners on the local site was very poor. During the working day about a third of prisoners were locked up and far too few were in purposeful activity. Those not at work or in education were typically out of their cell for just 90 minutes on a weekday and those on restricted basic regime had as little as 45 minutes. Most prisoners were locked up for most of the day at weekends. Prisoners on the category C site were unlocked from their cells.

Ofsted inspectors assessed the provision of work and skills as ineffective. In the area of resettlement work inspectors found “pockets of good rehabilitative practice” but the purpose of the category C unit was unclear and it certainly did not fulfil a resettlement function.

Mr Clarke said he seriously considered invoking HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ Urgent Notification process, which would have required the Secretary of State to produce an action plan for improvement within 28 days.

“It would have been very easy to justify doing so. However […] I believe the Urgent Notification process is best reserved for when there is no other obvious or feasible solution, when the intervention of the Secretary of State is needed to bring about some strategic or significant organisational change. In the case of Winchester, we did not consider that this was the case and believed the changes needed to bring about improvement were all within the gift of the prison itself.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said, senior managers had been appointed relatively recently and were supported by a team of managers “who impressed us as optimistic and committed.” He added: “There [is] a lot still to do at Winchester. Safety was a priority, but improvements here need to be linked to the introduction of a coherent and deliverable regime that would get prisoners out of their cells and using their time purposefully. In our view, managers need to focus on the basics, ensuring they measure and assess improvement critically, based on evidence. They then need to ensure such improvement is sustained.”

Phil Copple, HM Prison and Probation Service Director General for Prisons, said: “There is still much to do at HMP Winchester, but I know the Governor and his staff have been working hard to improve safety and I am pleased inspectors have recognised their dedication to achieving that. Everybody at the prison has been focused on delivering further improvement. Since the inspection, prisoners who are new to custody are receiving additional support, repair and improvement work is ongoing and the most violent and high-risk prisoners are being managed better.”

Commenting on the report, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Today’s report on Winchester will add to concerns raised by the recent television documentary, which appeared to show a bullying culture that had been ingrained in the prison for decades.

“Turning around prisons like Winchester is one of the biggest challenges facing the Secretary of State for Justice. It can be done, but it will require a commitment to reducing the number of people behind bars. A new year should herald a new start – to protect staff, to reduce crime and to prevent more people being swept into deeper currents of despair.”

* Read the full inspection report here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons  https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/

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