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Nick Hardwick Chief Inspector of Prisons

Minutes of the Annual General Meeting of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on 8 July 2014

Speaker: Nick Hardwick CBE, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons


Lord Ramsbotham, in the chair
Lord Beecham
Lord Bradley
Sarah Champion MP
Lord Fellowes
Lord Harris of Haringey
Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill
Lord Hylton
Baroness Howe of Idlicote
Lord Hurd of Westwell
Elfyn Llwyd MP
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
Lord Woolf


Nick Hardwick thanked the meeting for its invitation, and the Chair for his introduction. He was again following in Lord Ramsbotham’s distinguished footsteps. When he was first appointed, he was told by a number of people, whatever else he did, could he please avoid being like Lord Ramsbotham. He said the audience would have to make up their own minds whether he had or not.  He continued:

‘The last time I came, I had been in the role for just over a year, so it was very much my first impressions that I talked about then.  I think that I was then quite optimistic.  I thought there was a period of improvement ahead – I did not think it would be rapid or radical, but our inspections then seemed to be getting better. I am sorry to say that I don’t think that is the case now. I think this is a very critical and serious time for the Prison Service and I am very concerned about what is happening in prisons at the moment.

I am conscious when I speak to you this afternoon that some of you have heard me speaking before on this theme. Some of the things I have said before, which were warnings, I now feel are coming true. I feel the need to speak relatively forcibly about these issues because I think it is important that people listen.

I am very pleased to see Lord Woolf here today because I took the liberty of stealing a quote from his 1991 report into the Strangeways riots.  He said: ‘As often happens at times of change, the improvements that were being introduced brought with them periods of increased instability which made the prison system particularly vulnerable to disturbances…’ I think that is still a really powerful warning for our time. Because there are changes being made, some of which will in the long term potentially lead to improvement, but the process of transition is creating instability which is dangerous.

If the Government wants to improve resettlement outcomes, that’s good for prisoners and its good for the rest of us. I am sure there are ways in which the system can be made more efficient and that will be a good thing too. There are some very tangible improvements to talk about, so I will start with the good news.

One of the things we don’t recognise enough is the really dramatic fall that there has been in the numbers of young people in custody - and this may be due to some of the people in this room. At its height in October 2003, there were 3,200 young people under 18 in custody. The last figure I could find, from April this year, was 1,105 – a drop of two thirds.  That is a phenomenal drop, and that has all sorts of positive consequences.  A drop of that scale has profound consequences for those young people who remain in custody – for who they are - and it has profound consequences for the Government’s plans for the future of the youth estate. I will come back to that point.

The second area of improvement, which again is probably a tribute to some of the people in this room, is that there has been a steady improvement in women’s prisons. That is certainly reflected in our inspection findings. The last time we went to Holloway, some of the team were new, some of them had been there many times before, but it was generally agreed that it was the best inspection we had done at Holloway, with our best findings. We did a very positive inspection at Eastwood Park recently and Send was very good too.  That’s not to say there are not too many women in custody. That is still a big issue. But it is undeniable that things have improved, and you see that in a very tangible way. The number of self-harm incidents over the last ten years or so has dropped by more than 50%.  It is still disproportionately large. But at the start of that period there were more self-harm incidents in women’s prisons than in men’s.  Now there are far fewer self-harm incidents in women’s prisons than there are in men’s prisons. Obviously, a smaller number of women than men are in prison, but the actual hard data indicate that a real improvement has been made. That is because people have addressed some significant parts of the Corston agenda.  You see it when you go to a women’s prison. They are smaller – still too big, but smaller than men’s prisons. They have got their first night processes working better, because that’s a particularly vulnerable time. The mental health services are better, the substance misuse services are better. I think there is now a much greater recognition that to achieve equivalent outcomes you have to think about the specific needs of women, and you can’t simply run a women’s prison as you would run a men’s prison.  I am not saying that everything is perfect – far from it. But I am saying that there has been an improvement in the women’s estate.

I think both of those examples are important because they show what can be done. It is possible to reduce the numbers in custody, as has been done with the youth estate, without a corresponding increase in crime.  And it is possible to make improvement in the conditions and treatment of those who are held in prison. But the situation in adult male prisons in particular, where of course most people are held, is a very different story.  I just want to go through that a bit, because there seemed to be, in my recent discussion with the Secretary of State, a bit of a difference of opinion about the facts. So I have been careful about my facts, and I have turned to the Ministry of Justice Statistics Bulletin, which has their safety data in it.

The population of the prison system on the 4th July was 85,428.  The capacity was 86,647.  So there were 1200 spare places in the system on that day. Now the problem about that is that those spaces are not spread evenly. So in some places you have not got too great a problem. In other places you have got very significant overcrowding.  It is important that people understand the overcrowding issue. It is not primarily about how many men you can squeeze into a cell. It’s not a good thing if people are stuck in overcrowded conditions: a small cell designed for one with two men, with a shared toilet.  But that’s not the worst of it. The problem with overcrowding is what that means about the regime you can offer. The regime isn’t adequate for the numbers of men you hold, so you can’t get people out of their cells. People are spending 23 hours a day locked up because there are not the activities for them, there aren’t the staff to supervise them.  It’s not just a question of activities, it’s a question of whether they can get a shower, or get their association so that they can make a telephone call.

I will give you two examples from recent inspections we have done. One is from the report on Birmingham that we are publishing tomorrow. Birmingham has been making some progress, but what stymies them is the huge numbers they are taking on overcrowding drafts from other prisons. So they have got large numbers of men arriving at the prison very late in the evening. They have been shipped to Birmingham because other prisons are overcrowded. And the consequence of that is that their reception and first night processes can’t cope with the flow of men coming through. And the consequence in turn of that is, first, that is how the drugs get into the prison, and secondly the four recent self- inflicted deaths there have been in Birmingham have been men very near the start of their sentences. Our concern was that those critical first night and early days processes were not being implemented in a systematic and consistent way simply because the staff were being overwhelmed by the volumes of people they had to process so late at night.

Another example from a report on Winchester which we published recently: Winchester was suffering from the closures of other prisons in the south west, Dorchester and some others, and had also taken in a lot of young adults following the closure of Reading YOI. The consequence was that there was over-crowding, and they had to ship a lot of men out of Winchester.   Some of those men were in the middle of courses and programmes to address their behaviour: so again, there were very practical consequences.

I do not think it can be a coincidence that you have that level of overcrowding with the current level of self-inflicted deaths.  I think the figures of self-inflicted deaths are truly shocking. They shame us all. I am concerned that there is not more public concern and energy about this.  In the twelve months to December 2012, 60 people killed themselves in prison. In the 12 months to December 2013, that had gone up to 74.  In the 12 months to May this year, that had gone up to 91. In May alone, 11 men killed themselves in prison; more than two, getting on for three a week. I think that is a really shocking statistic. As people say, it is very difficult to find a precise pattern in those deaths. We have not had inquests on some of them; we haven’t had inquiries. What tips an individual man who is in despair over the edge – and they are mostly adult men – will be different in every circumstance.  There isn’t a clear pattern to it. But Anne Owers summed it up really well when she said: ‘What men in prison and who are in despair say they want is something to do and someone to talk to’.  And of course if you are banged up in your cell 23 hours a day that is not what you are getting.  I don’t think the onus is on me to prove a precise connection between the overcrowding and the numbers of deaths. I think it is for others to prove that is not the case, and to act as though it is, and take action now to try to address it.

The other thing about self-inflicted deaths is that, of course they are sad in themselves, but they are also a symptom of lack of control. You can’t kill yourself in prison if the systems are operating well and it is being properly managed.  At least you can, but it is more difficult to do so.  So that increase is a symptom of a lack of control, and there are other figures that support that.  I said to you earlier that the figures for self-harm incidents in women’s prisons were going down. In adult male prisons, self-harm incidents went up by two thirds, while women’s self-harm incidents over the same period went down by 56% - more than half. Last year alone there was a 4% increase in male self-harm incidents in prison: a big increase. You may say there is some connection with things going on in the community. There is a growth in self-harm and self-inflicted deaths amongst this age group in the community, but not at this rate.

Then we have levels of violence. The headline figure is that levels of violence in prison are down. That is not really surprising in that the group most likely to get into fights in prison is young men. If you significantly reduce the numbers of young men in custody you will reduce the numbers of violent incidents.  But if you look at adult men, what the small print tells you is that the number of incidents of violence has gone up, year after year. The number of serious violent incidents went up by 25% last year.

In parallel with the MoJ’s own data, there are our own inspection findings. Generally we make our judgements against four ‘healthy prison’ tests. We look at each prison in terms of these four tests: safety: that the men, particularly the most vulnerable, are held safely; respect: that prisoners are held with respect for their human dignity; purposeful activity: that prisoners are able and expected to take part in activity that is likely to benefit them; and resettlement: that prisoners are helped to resettle back into the community, to reduce the risk that they will reoffend. We give each prison a score on each of those tests: good, reasonably good, not sufficiently good, or poor. Our safety test normally runs at about 50-60%, sometimes higher.  In this year so far, only 30% of prisons, less than a third, have been good or reasonably good. So our safety ratings on prisons have dropped like a stone.  You might say that perhaps we picked on some more difficult prisons, that our risk assessments have got better, or that perhaps our judgements are inconsistent.   But when you put our judgements alongside the MoJ’s own safety data, I think that takes some explaining away.  Finally if you just talk to people, prison governors, prison officers, families and the men that are held, they will tell you a similar story.

Of course those safety issues are not just a risk for prisoners: they start to be a risk for the public.  Look at the recent concerns about Release on Temporary License (ROTL).  Most of those who are released on temporary license will be from an open prison. The first thing to say is that ROTL is a critical part of the resettlement process, when it is properly managed. It is key to introducing people back into the community and the failure rate is very low. Less than five in 100,000 releases result in an arrestable offence.  But where mistakes do happen, they have very serious consequences. I was asked to do a review for the Justice Secretary into one case where a man was murdered. What is happening is that in our open prisons, the numbers of prisoners who are coming to the conclusion of an indeterminate sentence for public protection is growing very rapidly, as those sentences work their way through the system.  So what you have got in the open prisons now is not the white collar criminal doing a fairly short sentence, who has been moved to open conditions fairly quickly, but men who have committed very serious offences, who are coming to the end of their sentences, who need to be prepared and managed very carefully as they are released back into the community.  That takes resources and skills. The mistake is to view open prisons as the easy option, no need to put much in the way of resources in, and you see the consequence there.  

And you see it in other things too. Lord Ramsbotham and I recently spoke at the launch of a report we had done on a review of the recommendations we had made following the death of Zahid Mubarek in 2000 in Feltham.  What was disappointing there was that a lot of the systems that had been put in place to prevent that happening again, to try and tackle both the safety issues when people were first admitted, and also the discrimination and racism that were a feature of that, were being dismantled. Someone whose job it might have been to tackle discrimination and ensure equality of outcome in the prison had three other jobs to do as well, and the equalities stuff was getting side-lined.

Two other examples of places I have visited recently that have caused me concern were Pentonville and Elmley prisons.  While we were at Elmley they were preparing to introduce an emergency regime because of staff shortages.  What an ‘emergency regime’ means is that they were pulling staff out from all the activities – any activity that wasn’t about the day to day running of the prison was being stopped. All the prisoners were being pulled back to the wings, because then they could make sure that the staff were concentrated there and could supervise them. So at least it meant the men were getting out for regular association so they could get showers and could make telephone calls, but they couldn’t do anything else.  But one consequence of that, that I don’t think they had properly thought through, was that those who had been working were getting paid, and of course if work was cancelled, their wages were being cut. Suddenly it was announced to the prison population at 24 hours’ notice that their wages were being cut and of course they were not very happy about it. So I said: If you deliver your side of the bargain, and you deliver a better regime and get these men out on association, maybe you will get away with it.  But if you mess up, so you have stopped these guys doing work, you have stopped them getting paid, and you don’t deliver on your plans for association, I think you will have a real problem.  Luckily there was a reasonable NOMS regional manager who seemed to be on the case, and knew what she was about, but that seemed to be a very near-run thing.

At Pentonville we had the same thing. There the problem was that they were letting a lot of staff go (under the Voluntary Early Departure scheme), but they hadn’t all gone, so they had a lot of disgruntled staff there. They had to recruit some new staff to fill other vacancies but they hadn’t got them in. So they had real staffing issues, and they did the same thing: they put the prison onto an emergency regime.  That’s just two we happen to have found while we were there. I don’t know how many other prisons are in the same situation.

When I was at the Scrubs recently, an iconic London prison which gets lots of visitors so they tend to ensure it’s alright, we found the worst situation for years. It’s probably true to say that the officers at the Scrubs are a robust lot. One of them pointed out some cells at the top of one of the wings. He said: ‘You need to go and look. I wouldn’t keep a dog in that’.  When a Scrubs officer says that, you can be fairly certain they are pretty grim, and indeed they were.

Brinsford, a young adult establishment, received the worst inspection findings for years. It was poor in every respect. Again, the Prison Service reacted by moving the governor pretty much the next day. The young men in there were really frightened, and they had good reason to be. At Ranby, we were really worried about safety when people first moved into the prison. We thought it was dangerous. Soon after we pointed that out, they had two self-inflicted deaths. I could go on.

If you put together our findings and the data that the MoJ itself produces, I think there is a very strong case that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s no good people trying to bury their heads in the sand and say there isn’t a problem because it’s inconvenient to admit it.  There is a problem, and it needs to be dealt with. When we go to any prison we take other inspectorates with us.  We give prison staff a pretty hard time: we push them hard. But I would want to say this: of course some of these issues are under the control of staff on the ground.  But to really fix some of them will require changes at a policy and political level. It can’t just be done by the people on the ground.  I have said this previously and I stick to that judgement.

I just wanted to move onto one other topic which I think it is important to understand, and that is what’s happening in the youth estate.  It’s a very good thing that the number of young people in custody has reduced. Congratulations to those who have achieved that, and to the Youth Justice Board in particular.  But a consequence of that is that those who remain are much more troubled.  There is a concentration of very troubled boys – mainly boys - with very challenging behaviour. We have been to a number of YOIs and one of the things we look at there is the CCTV footage of violent incidents. People may have heard me talk before about the footage I have seen at Feltham, where there was a group attack, and when you look at it you can only say they were trying to kill the victim.  It was a very violent attack. It’s not just Feltham; we have seen similar things at Cookham Wood and at Hindley.  We were at Hindley when the inquest into the death of Jake Hardy was going on. Bullying, which was a feature of Jake Hardy’s death, was absolutely uppermost in their minds.  But they could not stop the threats being shouted out of windows at night. They were aware of it; they were trying to deal with it; and there were still boys telling us they were being bullied and threatened there.  We have got some very troubled boys.

We now inspect Secure Training Centres with OFSTED, and I was at one that was quite well run recently. They had only got about 35 children there, ranging in age from 13 to 17. What they get there, in that small unit, is very individualised care. I said I wanted to go and see what was happening there at 10.30pm, when they are supposed to have their lights out. They were quite strict about getting them to put their lights out and turn the TV off: that was the general rule, which you would do as a parent, because they have school the next day.  But they said: ‘For some boys we don’t do that here. We don’t ask those boys who have been victims of abuse to turn their lights off because they can’t get to sleep, and they need to have some noise in the background too’. That’s just an example of the individual care they offer.  I don’t understand how that’s going to be done when you have got 300 of them in one place.

Quite apart from anything else, if you run something of the size of what’s proposed for a secure college, you will have about a third of all the young people in custody in one place.  It’s just not going to be workable, because of the spread of areas they come from.  I spent some time in the resettlement unit of an STC where the staff were negotiating, for days sometimes, on an individual basis with local authorities and local agencies, to try to secure the children some accommodation and something to do when they left. It was a painstaking and lengthy process for each individual child. If you spread that out over a third of the country, I don’t see how that’s going to work.

Initially I had some sympathy with these proposals because I do think there is a danger that our expectations of these children are too low. I do think they should have more education, and that they should be somewhere less prison-like, and I do think it would be a good thing to bring in some different skills and experiences in running these places. I don’t have a problem with any of that. But I think the facts on the ground now have changed so much because there has been this unexpected fall in the numbers. If the facts change, then you are entitled to change your mind. I just do not think it is going to work, to hold 300 of these very damaged children, a third of the population in custody, all in one place.

If you go in the morning and you look out of the window as they go to school, the staff come out and line the walkways, ten feet or so between them, while they let the boys out, a unit at a time, to make their way to the education block. Then they let the other boys out individually, if they have got to go off to healthcare or to do something else.  It took them half an hour to do that, with 35 boys.  With 300 boys, they are really going to struggle. So my argument is not that trying to do something different with these boys is a bad thing in principle. I just think that the facts on the ground now have changed so much and if the facts change you need to be prepared to adjust your responses accordingly.

That is probably enough from me now. I could go on all night but I won’t.  I will stop there. Thank you.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the speaker for his forthright and disturbing disclosures, and opened the meeting for questions.