DESPITE the lifting of the final pandemic restrictions in May 2022, many prisons in England and Wales are still failing to return to pre-pandemic regimes which support prisoners’ rehabilitation, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, has warned in his 2022–23 annual report.

The report highlights the continuing decline in the provision of purposeful activity. This was particularly marked across the men’s estate, where standards of purposeful activity were rated poor or insufficiently good in all but one prison inspected, marking a decline in standards in 17 of those jails since their previous inspection. With prison population figures only expected to increase, the Inspectorate will be monitoring the impact of overcrowding very closely, not least the effect it has on purposeful activity and time out of cell.

Charlie Taylor commented: “Over the last year I have consistently raised concerns with governors, the prison service and ministers that prisoners who have not had sufficient opportunities to become involved with education, training or work, and have spent their sentences languishing in their cells, are more likely to reoffend when they come out. While I recognise the challenges in reopening regimes and am not encouraging practice that would increase the risk of violence for either prisoners or staff, I have become increasingly frustrated by prisons whose future plans are so vague that it is hard to see when progress is going to be made.”

Mr Taylor said he was particularly concerned by the situation in category C prisons, where men can spend many years, making their role in supporting prisoners’ progress crucial. Many, such as Onley and Ranby, are situated in large, open sites with some very good facilities. It was therefore disappointing to find in such prisons empty workshops, overgrown farms and gardens, broken greenhouses and demotivated and disillusioned prisoners either locked in their cells or aimlessly stuck on the wing with nothing meaningful to do. While in some category C jails there were acute staffing difficulties, there did not appear to be an overall correlation between staffing levels and levels of purposeful activity.

Women also continued to be locked in their cells for long periods of time, which, given the lower risk posed by most female prisoners, was unacceptable. Mr Taylor also noted particular concerns about the treatment of women who were suffering from the most extreme mental health difficulties, particularly those among whom self-harm was prolific.

Violence, meanwhile, remained a significant issue in youth custody with institutions falling back into the use of ‘keep aparts’ to manage high levels of conflict between groups. This had far-reaching consequences: many children continued to spend far too long locked in their cells and far too little time in education and other purposeful activity.

Inspections of immigration removal centres were largely positive, with improvements in conditions for women in particular, although the Home Office continued to take too long to process cases, creating uncertainty and frustration for detainees and considerable cost to the taxpayer. Inspection of the short-term holding facilities in Kent, meanwhile, noted improvements from previous facilities at Tug Haven, but serious underlying weaknesses in the leadership of the site which resulted in severe overcrowding and spread of infectious disease by autumn 2022.

Mr Taylor commented: “In every setting that we inspect, it is the quality of leadership that makes the most difference in all places of detention. One of the most valuable resources in our prisons is the best 20 or 30 governors who are visionary, dynamic, courageous and inspiring. In the next year I hope to see a significant improvement in the amount of time prisoners are spending in purposeful activity. The best governors have showed us what is possible; it is time for others to follow.”

Mr Taylor concluded: “If prisoners are locked up all day, they won’t be rehabilitated or learn the skills they need to get a job on release, that makes them even more likely to reoffend.”

Commenting on the report, Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This important report lifts the lid on a prison system that has been overwhelmed and under-resourced, to the effect that it is failing to help people to move on from crime and rebuild their lives.

“The Chief Inspector raises the importance of leadership, suggesting it can be a crucial factor in turning a prison around. What we now need to see is strong leadership from government to address the chronic issues afflicting the system as a whole.

“With its own projections indicating that the prison population will rise by up to 25 per cent in the next four years, the government is trying to build its way out of a crisis, inflicting new prisons on communities where they are not wanted. And yet the problems described in today’s report will only grow if numbers are allowed to soar, becoming harder, and costlier, to fix.

“Westminster has seen nine changes of Secretary of State for Justice in eight years, but people living and working in prisons have seen only systemic inertia and malaise. We can change that, but only if we recognise that expanding the prison system even further will prove a historic mistake.”

* Read the Annual Report 2022-23 here.

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