INSPECTORS returning to Lowdham Grange prison to assess progress after a worrying earlier inspection found levels of violence had increased by 55 per cent, self-harm by 41 per cent and drug use had also risen further.

Two men had also taken their own lives, taking the total of self-inflicted deaths at the jail during 2023 to five. And, in the ten months before the review, 127 staff had also resigned leaving the prison desperately short-staffed.

Lowdham Grange, near Nottingham, opened in 1998 and was run for 25 years by Serco. In February 2023, the contract was transferred to Sodexo. By December 2023, the situation at the jail was so concerning that the prison service had intervened to take back operational management, to try and arrest the prison’s decline. An experienced governor was brought in to work alongside the director, as well as prison officers on detached duty. However, prison inspectors did not find an acceptable level of progress in a single one of the concerns that they had raised at the earlier inspection, which was particularly worrying as these focused on safety and public protection.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “It’s unprecedented for the prison service to use their power to ‘step in’ and take back control of a privately run prison, so we knew Lowdham was struggling, but even so we were shocked by quite how bad things had got at the jail. The new Governor and the existing Director appeared to be working well together, however, and there was very early evidence that their combined actions since the step-in, had begun to improve things. If this is going to be sustained, it is absolutely vital that the prison continues to read the support it needs from the prison service to maintain adequate staffing and a relentless focus on improving safety, including the serious drug problem at the jail.

“We are increasingly concerned about the prevalence of drugs in prisons and Lowdham Grange had one of the highest positive result rates for mandatory drug testing, at over 40 per cent. It was, therefore, particularly reassuring to see that tackling this was now a priority, with targeted searches over the Christmas period leading to more than 600 litres of hooch being confiscated.”

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The continuing problems at Lowdham Grange should remind everyone that, while crumbling Victorian prisons get most attention, there are major issues in newer jails as well.

“This prison only opened a quarter of a century ago, but like so many others it is paralysed by staff shortages and is failing to meet even the basic needs of the hundreds of men living there. This report confirms what the men tell the Howard League, that not enough is being done to support people in mental health crisis and to keep them safe.

“It exposes the fallacy of the government’s plan to solve the prisons crisis by building new jails. Any serious attempt to reduce crime should begin with investment in housing, education and jobs.”

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