HMP LEYHILL, AN OPEN PRISON in Gloucestershire, England, holding many men convicted of sexual offences, was assessed by inspectors in 2021 as requiring urgent improvements in its work to release high-risk prisoners.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said Leyhill held almost 500 adult male prisoners in preparation for their release back into the community. With two-thirds convicted of sexual offences and the majority serving long sentences, half of which were indeterminate or for life, “this is a complex population requiring careful management of risk.”

However, inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, who visited in February and March 2021, were concerned by serious weaknesses in the planning for release of high-risk prisoners. The report noted: “Poor management oversight of public protection arrangements for those prisoners approaching release was a serious concern. The planning was not sufficiently robust or timely, particularly for those convicted of sexual offences.

“Prisoners had had virtually no opportunity to demonstrate their level of risk on ROTL (release on temporary licence) for the last 12 months. Additionally, prisoners were being transferred into Leyhill from closed prisons with just weeks until their release, and the probation staff overseeing the riskiest prisoners had been predominantly off-site for the last 12 months.”

Mr Taylor added: “The lack of progression opportunities had prevented some prisoners from demonstrating their suitability for release to the parole board. Over half of the parole hearings held in 2020 had been deferred.

“About half of prisoners went to approved premises owing to risk concerns, but a lack of places in such accommodation meant that some prisoners waited months for release after being granted parole.” Extraordinarily, one prisoner with disabilities was still being held more than a year beyond the date that his release had been approved.

On a more positive note, the prison had responded well to the Covid-19 threat and there had been few confirmed cases to date. “With half of the population aged over 50 and more than a third in high-vulnerability groups, these measures had limited potentially serious consequences from the pandemic”,  Mr Taylor said. Communal areas were clean and face coverings were worn both indoors and outdoors by staff and prisoners. Health care provision was good.

Inspectors found considerably fewer restrictions on daily life than in closed prisons. As before the pandemic, prisoners were unlocked for more than 11 hours a day and could access the open air during this time, with free movement around the site. Workshops had been kept open to provide a supervised, safe environment. Most prisoners who were able to work were employed, which was impressive, Mr Taylor said.

The number of reported incidents of violence and self-harm remained low and absconsions from the prison had fallen since the start of national restrictions. Despite this relatively positive picture, Mr Taylor added, “we received many negative comments from prisoners in response to our survey. Less than two-thirds said that staff treated them with respect and almost a third reported that staff bullied or victimised them. Black and minority ethnic prisoners reported even poorer perceptions of treatment.”

The lack of ROTL was also a source of much frustration. Although leaders had rightly taken a cautious approach, given the vulnerability of the prison population to the virus, only three prisoners were in essential work placements outside the prison at the time of the visit. Employer links were far too limited and, even before the start of the pandemic, were too few to fulfil the resettlement purpose of an open prison.

In summary, Mr Taylor said:“The prison had managed well in shielding its ageing population from the virus. It had remained safe and continued to provide a decent daily regime. However, prison leaders had been too slow to address concerns, including deteriorating staff–prisoner relationships, poor perceptions of treatment among those from a black and minority ethnic background and frustration at the lack of progression opportunities during the pandemic. The management of public protection arrangements for the release of some high-risk prisoners also needed urgently to improve.”

* Read the inspection report here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons