CHELMSFORD PRISON AND YOUNG OFFENDERS INSTITUTION has been found by inspectors to have experienced high levels of violence, self-inflicted death and self-harm.

The prison has also been characterised by overcrowding, piled up rubbish and a persistent rat infestation.

Many of the 700 prisoners were locked up for nearly 23 hours a day and their access to purposeful activity, including work, training and education, was poor. Inspectors also found a “negative” staff culture in the partly-Victorian prison – which meant, according to one prisoner, that getting anything from officers was like “getting blood from a stone.”

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, was so troubled by the significant problems found in August 2021 at Chelmsford that he invoked the Urgent Notification (UN) process. This gave the Secretary of State for Justice 28 days to respond publicly with plans to improve the prison. UNs have been used sparingly since 2017 – four relating to children’s establishments and six in men’s local prisons like Chelmsford.

Publishing the full report on the August 2021 Chelmsford inspection, Mr Taylor recalled that the prison had last been inspected in June 2018, when his predecessor considered invoking a UN but was reassured by both local management and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) that they were aware of the problems at the prison and would make improvements.

Mr Taylor said: “… that optimism was misplaced. At this inspection we found no improvement in outcomes in safety and purposeful activity, both of which remained poor; no improvement in respect where outcomes remained not sufficiently good, and a deterioration in rehabilitation and release planning to not sufficiently good.

“The last time we were able to write a positive report about this prison was 10 years ago and it was clear to us that the jail was failing in its basic duty to keep those it held safe.”

The report highlighted concerns about the “negative and damaging staff culture.” For many staff, Mr Taylor added, morale was low, “and they were disengaged from their work and dismissive of the men in their care. Prisoners found it very difficult to access even the most basic entitlements and were frustrated that they could not get things done. We were told that this frustration had led to an increase in assaults on staff.

“The negative culture among some staff was compounded by a lack of management oversight or accountability, which allowed poor staff behaviour and practice to go unchallenged. Other very serious concerns included the inadequacy of the prison’s response to the high levels of suicide and self-harm, and the similarly deficient response to some of the highest levels of violence in the prison estate.”

Since 2018 there had been eight self-inflicted deaths and four non-natural deaths.

The poverty of the daily regime, particularly during the Covid-19 restrictions, meant that many prisoners spent extended periods locked up and isolated in their cells. “It was no surprise that many prisoners told us that they felt unsafe at the prison”, Mr Taylor commented. One prisoner wrote in the inspection survey: “The whole of G wing are not getting out of their cells enough to mix, and my mental health is at a breaking point.”

Mr Taylor said: “Such factors, combined with the inherent risks and vulnerabilities associated with Chelmsford’s status as a frontline local establishment, and the failure to grip the prison’s problems over recent years, meant that Chelmsford met our criteria for an Urgent Notification. I concluded my letter to the Secretary of State by saying that HMP Chelmsford would not improve without a sustained drive to make sure that all staff members take responsibility for creating a safer, more decent environment, a meaningful regime and greater engagement with training and education.

“I argued that this will require strong and consistent leadership at all levels within the prison and much more effective support from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). As we indicated in 2018 and repeat now, the drift and decline at this prison must be addressed.”

* Read the report published on 24 November here.

* The August 2021 Urgent Notification and the Secretary of State’s response are available here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons