Chief Inspector highlights persistent problems in our prisons

Work with offenders on Charlie Taylor’s first annual report as Chief Inspector of Prisons

Today Charlie Taylor published his first annual report as Chief Inspector of Prisons in which he commended the Prison Service and government ministers for their initial swift action in preventing the sorts of COVID outbreaks that took place in prison systems in many other countries. However, he also highlighted the significant physical and mental health problems which have come from long periods of extremely restricted prison regimes designed to contain the virus. The Chief Inspector warned that some longstanding problems remained as daily regimes eased in the post-COVID-19 period. These included not only violence, drugs and self-harm but also inconsistency in delivering purposeful activity and rehabilitation.

Mr Taylor’s report covers a year of the COVID-19 pandemic. HMI Prisons was able to report on life in detention in this unprecedented period, Mr Taylor said, “because we were determined, in the early weeks of the pandemic, to find a safe way to enter and inspect places of detention”.

The Chief Inspector made it clear that the entrenched problems the Inspectorate had identified over recent years did not disappear because of the pandemic. Violence, for instance, may have been suppressed by locking people up for almost all of the day, but its underlying causes have not gone away and he argued strongly that continuing severe lock-up cannot be the answer in a post-COVID-19 world.

About the Chief Inspector

Charlie Taylor’s career before becoming Chief Inspector of Prisons last year was predominantly in the youth justice and education sectors. A teacher by profession, he was Head at two special schools for children with severe behavioural difficulties between 2006-2011 before moving to the Department for Education where he was Expert Adviser in Behaviour to the Secretary of State for 18 months, completing reports on alternative provision and school attendance. In 2012 he became Chief Executive of the National College for Teaching & Leadership until 2015. He then became a director at the Ministry of Justice where he is best known for his authoritative review of the Youth Justice System. The “Taylor Review” (published in December 2016) argued for a devolved youth justice system and a network of secure schools which the government accepted in principle although work in setting up secure schools has been extremely slow. The first (and commentators speculate perhaps the only) secure school is set to open in 2022 or 2023.

Key findings

The headline issues identified by the Chief Inspector included:

  • Inspectors found that prisoners were initially grateful for the steps taken to keep them safe. However, an HMI Prisons thematic review showed that keeping the worst excesses of the virus at bay was achieved at significant cost to the welfare and progression of prisoners, most of whom have spent the pandemic locked in their cells for 22.5 hours a day. Prisoners felt drained, despondent, depleted, helpless and without hope. Inspectors found that most mental health services had ceased routine assessments or interventions and were focusing only on urgent and acute care.
  • Too many prisoners were locked up with too little to do before the pandemic and the situation became much worse this year, even in training prisons. Visits have recently restarted in some establishments, but many prisoners have not seen family or friends for over a year.
  • Classroom-based education stopped in March 2020 and did not restart in the summer, in most prisons when restrictions were being lifted. Generic cell packs were developed, but some of these did not arrive until months after the lockdown began. “The idea that these packs are in any way a substitute for high-quality face-to-face teaching is fanciful,” Mr Taylor said. “The lack of access to offender management programmes, education, resettlement planning and family visits meant that many prisoners were released without some of the core building blocks that would help them lead successful, crime-free lives.”
  • While self-harm in male prisons had generally fallen, it increased among women in prison, particularly in the early months of the pandemic. Mr Taylor added: “Women’s lack of contact with the outside world had led to extreme frustration and many had not seen their children for many months.”
  • When restrictions were introduced last March 2020, children in custody were subjected to the same regime as adults, with a big reduction in time out of cell and, with the notable exception of Parc YOI, in South Wales, no face-to-face education.

Mr Taylor drew attention to variations in performance between ostensibly comparable prison establishments, making the point that good leadership is absolutely critical in the prison service.

The Chief Inspector concluded with a strong message to government ministers and prison officer unions that the restricted regime in operation throughout the pandemic must come to an end:

There is a danger of learning the wrong lesson from the pandemic by assuming that the solution to prison violence is to isolate prisoners from each other, rather than to make sure that when they are out of their cells, they are well-managed by high-quality officers during association, and given access to meaningful and productive education, training and work.”