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What is the 10 prisons project?

Russell Webster explains the MoJ's 'ten prisons project' and its importance to turning our failing prisons around.

The central plank of the Ministry of Justice’s strategy for reversing the decline of our prison system is Prison Minister Rory Stewart’s “Ten Prisons Project”.

Initially launched in August last year, the Minister announced a package of measures designed to lift standards at 10 jails, all of which had what was officially described as “acute” problems.

The idea is that if the MoJ can turn around these 10 prisons, it will learn the best way to improve conditions across the prison estate.

The ten prisons are: Hull, Humber, Isis, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham, Ranby, and Wormwood Scrubs.

The project is designed to focus on challenging violent and disruptive behaviour and includes £10 million funding to fight drugs, improve security and, crucially, boost leadership capabilities through new training.

The original press release was bold and promised tangible results by the end of 2019 – regular readers will remember that the Minister himself promised to resign if he hadn’t started to reduce substantially the levels of violence and self-harm in our prisons by this coming August.

The three main features of the “Ten Prisons Project” were: increased security to tackle drugs; action to improve the physical condition of prisons and investment leadership and staff training to set “the highest expectations” for prisoners and challenge disruptive and violent behaviour fairly, consistently and firmly to restore order and control.

The project had a dedicated funding stream of £10 million set against those three features, the specifics of which were intended to:

  • Curb the flow of drugs and phones into prisons – £6 million has been designated to tackle drug supply by enhancing physical security at the jails; with investment in drug-detection dogs, body scanners, and improved perimeter defences.
  • Improve safety and decency – there will be a focus on standardising residential areas inside the prisons. £3 million will support this through targeted improvements to the fabric of each establishment, ensuring that living conditions meet new standards of decency and cleanliness that are to be drawn up as part of the plan.
  • Develop new standards of leadership – £1 million will fund bespoke training programmes and interventions to give governors the support they need to drive improvement at their prisons. They will have the opportunity to call on former officers and governors who will share best practice from their years of experience. A staff college model, inspired by the military, will be developed for Governors. More junior uniformed staff will be given the support and confidence to challenge disruptive behaviour.

Just how important the “Ten Prisons” scheme is to the MoJ was emphasised when the Ministry’s first press release of 2019 was entitled “10 prisons project gathers pace”.

Despite the promising headline, there were scant details in the accompanying text, although we did learn that all 10 prisons now have a drug strategy manager, an additional eight staff for entry searching, four extra drug detection dogs and two extra dog handlers.

The press release led with the less than seismic news that a new x-ray body scanner has been installed at HMP Leeds. The scanner, which costs about £120,000, operates in a similar way to a standard hospital x-ray machine but the level of radiation is 400 times lower. The purpose of the machine is to detect packages of drugs (or occasionally small mobile phones) hidden inside a prisoner’s body, almost always in the rectum.

It appears the Ministry is keen to reassure us that it is investing in prisons and has spent a good chunk of the extra £10 million. We must wait and see whether this extra investment makes any difference.

It was bad luck for the MoJ that the mainstream media paid limited attention to this announcement, focusing instead on an announcement by Assistant Chief Constable Jason Hogg, who leads on prison intelligence for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who said he strongly suspects criminal gangs are getting their associates or family members jobs in the prison service with the intention of smuggling drugs and mobile phones into prisons.

The next quarterly Safety in Custody statistical bulletin is due out in the last week of January and many will look with interest to see whether “10 prisons” has had an impact.

It will be interesting to see whether the MoJ separates out these 10 establishments and compares their incidence of self-harm, assaults on staff and on prisoners with that of the rest of the prison estate.

If “10 prisons” can be shown to work, it will restore some much-needed morale to prison staff although it will of course also provide plenty of ammunition for prison reformers who would like to see an extra million pounds given to every prison in England and Wales.