INSPECTORS returning to HMP Lowdham Grange found a prison in a state of turmoil following the handover from one private provider to another, the first transition of its kind. The fallout from this was affecting almost every aspect of prison life, with significant staff shortages and rising levels of self-harm, violence and disruptive behaviour.

Fourteen prisoners had died since the last inspection, including six deaths which were self-inflicted. Three of the self-inflicted deaths had taken place in March, shortly after the transition, prompting speculation among staff and prisoners alike that uncertainty and change were causal factors. The evidence pointed to continuing high levels of self-harm and an indifferent approach to oversight and intervention that might help reduce such harm.

Most communal areas were clean and well-maintained, but staff supervision of prisoners’ behaviour on the wings or when moving around the site was lacking. While the overall level of violence had fallen since the last inspection, it was now rising again. This was linked to the availability of drugs, associated debt and bullying, as well as gang-related violence. In response, some prisoners chose to isolate themselves in their cells, some for several months.

Inspectors were told repeatedly that some prison officers behaved in an unacceptable manner, such as making inappropriate comments to prisoners. Use of force in response to disruption was very poorly overseen, and health care staff had reported several instances of prisoners with serious injuries as a result of physical force being used against them. These had not been investigated by leaders.

The inspection also identified serious gaps in public protection. About 90of  per cent the population were assessed as presenting a high risk of serious harm to others, but there were not enough places on the right accredited programmes. This was particularly acute for the 40 per cent of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences. Most were likely to wait years before they could undertake an accredited programme because other prisoners were prioritised ahead of them.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said: “Lowdham Grange was struggling. Some turbulence is to be expected in the context of transition from one provider to another, but that does not mean the issues we found were inevitable. We were confident that the newly appointed director, who was very experienced, had a good understanding of the extent of the challenge and was committed to seeing the transition through successfully, which should address many of the concerns we have identified. In the meantime, the prison needs support and encouragement to make sure this is achieved expeditiously.”

Commenting on the report, Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “We often hear about the grim conditions inside Victorian prisons, but this report should remind everyone that there are major issues in newer jails as well. It should give ministers pause for thought as they continue to seek planning permission for more prisons against the wishes of local residents.

“Lowdham Grange only opened 25 years ago, but with staff shortages, allegations of misconduct, rising levels of self-harm and violence, and men spending as little as three hours a day out of their cells, this is a jail with many of the problems that we see up and down the country in a prison system that has been asked to do too much, with too little, for too long.

“Most worrying of all is the fact that 14 men have died in Lowdham Grange in the last five years, including three who are believed to have taken their own lives a short while after the prison changed hands in February. It would be wrong to speculate about factors that may have contributed to these tragedies, but clearly, they warrant an urgent and thorough investigation.”

* Read the inspection report here.

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