THE PRISON SERVICE MUST DO MORE to make sure prisoners spend more time out of their cells in purposeful activity and it needs to recruit and retain high-quality staff, according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons in his annual report for 2021–22.

Charlie Taylor also calls for greater support for women prisoners both inside jail and as part of their resettlement into the community, and expresses concern about the “haphazard arrangements” put in place by the Home Office for people who have crossed the Channel in small boats.

In his introduction to the report, Mr Taylor says that the lack of purposeful activity in prisons is “a seemingly intractable problem” raised by each of his six predecessors since the first HMI Prisons annual report published 40 years ago. Recent inspections found that some prisoners were locked up for 23 hours a day or more. “In category C training prisons, in spite of their remit, the situation was often little better, with prisoners spending their time sleeping or watching daytime television rather than engaged in the work, education or training that would help them to resettle successfully in the community on release.

“Throughout the year prisoners told us that their mental health was suffering, with 51 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women saying they had mental health difficulties. We do not yet know what the longer-term effect of lockdowns will be on prisoners, but there is no doubt that there will be a price to pay for the loss of family visits, the limited chance to socialise with other prisoners, the lack of education, training or work, the curtailing of rehabilitative programmes, the cancellation of group therapy and the dearth of opportunities for release on temporary licence.

“Some of the most disheartening inspections were at prisons with large proportions of young men, where the often extensive grounds and workshops remained mostly empty and just a handful of prisoners were receiving any face-to-face teaching. The failure to fill the gaps in the skills and education of these prisoners and the low expectations of their abilities and potential meant they were learning to survive in prison rather being taught how to succeed when they were released.

“Unless these men are given the support that they need, there is the potential that they will lead long lives of criminality – creating victims, disrupting their communities and placing a huge burden on the state.”

He adds that the findings of the Inspectorate’s joint thematic report with Ofsted into the teaching of reading in prisons published in March had been “shocking”, “depressing” and “demonstrated the lack of ambition for prison education”.

Mr Taylor describes staff recruitment as “perhaps the biggest challenge facing the prison service” given the flow of resignations that have, in some jails, “become a flood”. This problem was being exacerbated by the employment of unsuitable candidates who left the service within the first year of taking up the job.

He also calls on the prison service to identify and promote the most capable prison leaders to carry out “necessary cultural change” in many public sector prisons. “The welcome lifting of all national prison restrictions on 9 May 2022 means that there is now no reason why prisons cannot return to regimes at least as open as they were before the pandemic.

“There is the chance to reset after a difficult two years. If prisons are to be an essential component of a successful justice system that is trusted by the public to keep them safe, the ambition must also be to go further, making sure that governors and education providers create opportunities for prisoners to develop vital skills that they can use when they return to the community.”

On immigration facilities, Mr Taylor says: “I remain very concerned about the haphazard arrangements in place for those who have crossed the Channel in small boats. Promised facilities in Dover had not materialised when we inspected in November 2021, and we found that some families were sleeping on the floor in flimsy tents with inadequate bedding or crammed into facilities where some basic safeguards were not in place.”

Commenting on the report, Andrea Coomber, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This important report highlights many of the problems that the Howard League has seen through its own work with people in prison – not least how staff shortages have contributed to men, women and children being locked in their cells for hours on end with nothing to do, and the damage this causes to their mental health.

“It speaks to the utter pointlessness of time spent behind bars. People who require support to move on from crime and lead healthy lives are being crammed into overcrowded cells and left to sleep through their sentences while classrooms and workshops sit empty.

“As the Conservative Party prepares to choose its next leader and Prime Minister, here is compelling evidence of the need for change. When prisons fail to reduce crime, turn lives around and prepare people for safe release, what is the point in building more of them?”

Also commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “Penal policy requires a political reset is the main conclusion we can draw from the Chief Inspector’s annual report. This government boasts about its intention to have 20,000 more people in prison by 2026, but the report could not be clearer about the likely outcome if the system continues as it is.

“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key might be a good policy for an election campaign, but this report shows that it actually makes us all less safe. Perhaps uniquely amongst public services, we can get a better result by shrinking rather than growing our use of prison. There has never been a better time to seize that opportunity, but it will take a change in the political approach to make it possible.”

* Read the Annual Report 2021-22 here.

* Sources: HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Howard League for Penal Reform and Prison Reform Trust