THE Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote to Alex Chalk MP, the Secretary of State for Justice on Wednesday 26 July to issue an urgent notification for improvement at HMP Bristol, after an unannounced inspection revealed extremely worrying conditions.

Bristol, which had previously been issued with an urgent notification in 2019, remained one of the most unsafe prisons in the country: eight men had taken their own lives since the last inspection, most of whom had done so within the last ten months. One man had also been charged with murdering his cell-mate. Despite this high level of risk, emergency cell call bells often went unanswered by staff.

The prison was violent and riddled with drugs, some of which were delivered by drones to prisoners through cell windows from which they had removed the glass under the noses of prison officers.

With serious staff shortages, the prison was struggling to deliver any kind of regime and most men spent up to 22 hours a day locked in their cells. Almost half of cells now held two men, meaning they were very cramped indeed. Some prisoners were held in single cells with no in-cell sanitation sharing toilets in an appalling condition. Despite the obvious effects of overcrowding, the capacity of the prison had actually been increased on several occasions since the last inspection.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said: “This was a very worrying inspection, but the challenges facing Bristol – short staffing, aging facilities, overcrowding and unstable leadership with inadequate support from the centre – can be seen in other jails across England and Wales, albeit thankfully to a lesser extent. Our concern is that, with rising population pressures and increasingly stretched resources, more and more prisons are going to start to struggle.

“The situation in many prisons is concerning and we need to see resolute support from the centre over the coming months to every prison and governor if we’re to avoid seeing more prisons in the desperate state that Bristol is in. We cannot end up in a situation where men are simply warehoused in appalling conditions, with real risk of harm not only to them, but also to the public on their release if their rehabilitation is not being supported during their time in custody.”

Commenting on the situation at Bristol, Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “When a prison is made the subject of an Urgent Notification, as Bristol was in 2019, you would expect it to be given extra support and the resources it needs to improve. That Bristol remains, four years on, one of the most unsafe prisons in the country is a crushing indictment of a system that has been asked to do too much, with too little, for too long.

“There are grim details to be found throughout the Chief Inspector’s briefing, but most worrying of all is his accurate assessment that the problems in Bristol – staff shortages, overcrowding, unstable leadership and aging facilities – can be found in other jails up and down the country.

“Bristol follows Exeter in being the second men’s prison to receive consecutive Urgent Notifications. With the prison population in England and Wales having risen by more than 4,000 since the beginning of the year, putting jails under enormous pressure, the logical question might be: ‘Where next?’

“Sensible steps to reduce prison numbers would save lives, protect staff and help more people to move on from crime.”

* Read the letter sent to the Secretary of State on 26 July 2023 here and the debrief from the inspection here.

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