INSPECTORS returning to HMP Exeter, in England, were so concerned by the high rates of suicide and self-harm, inadequate care for vulnerable new arrivals and oversight of health care, that they have issued an Urgent Notification within days of completing the inspection.

A report published on 16 February sets out the full findings from the inspection, which triggered the first ever second consecutive Urgent Notification for a prison.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons said: “Exeter is a reception prison – men arrive here newly sentenced or remanded and those early days are when we know prisoners are at their most vulnerable, particularly those with substance misuse problems or mental health concerns. Yet we found the highest levels of self-harm in the country for this kind of prison, and ten men had taken their own lives in the prison since 2018. The complacency with which such shocking standards seems to have been viewed by the prison service is extraordinary.”

Exeter receives more men with mental health and substance misuse problems than similar prisons, yet despite this, early days processes did not sufficiently support these men through their first few weeks in jail when they are at their most vulnerable.

Staff shortages in health care were also impacting the provision of care, particularly in terms of support for mentally ill and neurodivergent prisoners, where there was significant unmet need. Prisoners who needed prescribed medication were not receiving it during their first few days and some were becoming unwell. Men who had begun alcohol detoxification or opiate substation were also not being routinely observed.

The prison was also falling short on a number of other fronts, with prisoners locked up for long periods of time and very few being able to attend education or training despite places being available for them to do so. Prisoners told inspectors they were bored and desperate to get off the wing and do something meaningful with their time.

In such a high-risk jail, inspectors said it was particularly disappointing to find there had been three governors and eight deputy governors since their last inspection. What is needed in Exeter is a period of stability, they said. The offender management unit, for example, which did not suffer such high turnover, was an effective and well-motivated team.

Inspectors invoked the Urgent Notification process within days of completing the inspection, concerned that more men would die without urgent action. The Secretary of State for Justice published his response 28 days later accepting the situation at Exeter was “completely unacceptable” and committing to a course of action to improve the situation.

Charlie Taylor said: “We will be returning to Exeter in 2023 and expect to see a significant improvement as well as evidence that the prison service is investing in continuing to make change over the long-term as the Secretary of State has assured us that it will.”

Commenting on the report, Rob Preece, Communications Manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This devastating report is merely the latest chapter in a long, tragic history of failure at Exeter prison. This is a jail where at least 26 people have lost their lives, in circumstances recorded as ‘self-inflicted’, over the last decade – and yet conditions are getting worse.

“Inspectors first raised the alarm seven years ago, when they noticed a severe decline in safety, respect and help given to people preparing for release. When they returned in 2018, self-harm had risen by 40 per cent, assaults had doubled and one in seven men said that they had developed a problem with drugs since arriving at the prison.

“In 2021, the watchdog found men locked in their cells for more than 22 hours each day. Relationships between people living and working in the prison were not good enough, and inspectors concluded that significant progress was needed to make it safer.

“Today, after years of chaotic leadership, Exeter prison remains severely overcrowded, with more than 330 men crammed into cells that are designed to hold about 240. It has been asked to do much, with too little, for too long. Multiple warnings have gone unheeded.

“How are prisons such as Exeter helping to keep the public safe? Any serious attempt to reduce crime would begin with investment in housing, education and jobs, and a commitment to ensure that people are given the support they need.”

* Read the inspection report here.

* Read the Urgent Notification issued for Exeter here and the Secretary of State’s response here.

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