HMIP Reports, HMP Dartmoor

The prison was given an inspection in December 2013 the full report can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

“HMP Dartmoor was established in 1809 to hold French prisoners-of-war from the Napoleonic wars. It has had many incarnations since then and developed a notorious reputation as a high security prison. However, the prison is now a category C training prison which, at the time of this inspection, held 655 adult men.

The prison’s isolated location high on Dartmoor itself, and the age and dilapidated state of some of its buildings, make it a very challenging establishment to run. A few months before our inspection, ministers announced that negotiations would take place with the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the prison, about its closure. However, there is a notice period of 10 years and it is therefore quite possible that the prison will continue to operate for many years to come. Despite the challenges of the environment and location, we saw no reason why HMP Dartmoor could not offer improved and reasonable prisoner outcomes for the prisoners it held.

There had been improvements in some areas since our last inspection and there were some credible plans in place to make more. The prison had created good partnerships with external service providers. There were significant weaknesses – but most of these were in the prison’s direct control.

However, an essential foundation for improvement is some certainty about the timeframe in which the prison will continue to operate. Even a minimum timeframe would enable staff to know where they stand, facilitate some sensible decisions about the capital investment required and provide a basis for effective planning to meet the needs of the prison population, which were changing and included many more sex offenders as other prisons in the South West closed.

The prison was not safe enough. Men had long journeys to the prison and reception processes were efficient and welcoming. Care for men at risk of suicide or self-harm was reasonable. However, too many prisoners felt unsafe and levels of victimisation were high. Sloppy processes meant that the prison was not adequately sighted on the true levels of violence. We found hard evidence of violent incidents in wing observation books, adjudication records and meeting minutes that were not centrally recorded. There was little support for victims who were often moved to the vulnerable prisoners wing. Vulnerable prisoners felt even less safe than the population as a whole. Safety was compromised by the too ready availability of prohibited drugs (which included synthetic cannabinoids such as ‘Spice’, which were not detectable with current testing methods), injected drugs, tradable prescribed drugs and illicitly brewed alcohol, or ‘hooch’.

Discipline and behaviour management processes required improvement. The environment of the segregation unit had improved since our last inspection and relationships between staff and prisoners were good, but very little was done to address the behaviour of the men held there. At the time of the inspection a more restrictive incentives and earned privileges scheme had been introduced nationally. Implementation of the scheme had been poor at Dartmoor. The timescales and criteria set out in the national scheme had not been followed in some cases and prisoners did not understand why they had been demoted. Some retired prisoners and those with disabilities were demoted because they were not working. Prisoners without sentence plans were demoted – because they were not following their sentence plan. We found men at risk of suicide on assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management who were placed on the basic regime with very little to occupy them or distract them.

One wing of the prison was closed and derelict but good efforts had been made to improve the external environment. The cells in use were very small and some of these, which were cramped for one man, were shared by two. Unscreened toilets were placed by the beds. Some roofs leaked badly and some cells were damp. Good and improved relationships between staff and prisoners mitigated the worst effects of the poor physical conditions. The strategic management of diversity and equality issues was weak but practical support on the wings was better. The prison had a high proportion of older and disabled prisoners. Many of them were on the vulnerable prisoners wing where support was good; support for those on other wings was less so. Some prisoners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and foreign national prisoners told us they felt isolated and unsupported. Perhaps because of its location, the prison had more prisoners who identified themselves as ex-service personnel or veterans; support for these men was good. Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust, the new health care provider, had improved health services.

Most men enjoyed good time out of their cells, although opportunities for outdoor exercise were too limited. The education, training and work environment was impressive and the quality of what was provided was good. There was good use of peer mentors. It was good to see prisoners’ success publicly celebrated. Prisoners made real progress and there was a good focus on the literacy and numeracy skills that would help them obtain jobs or further training on release. It was very unfortunate therefore that the prison had miscalculated the number of activity places available and too few prisoners benefited from what was on offer. Further activity places were due to come on stream a few months after the inspection and we believed the prison would be able to make up the shortfall.

Rehabilitation processes were weak. Some of this was a regional problem. Far too many men arrived at the prison without an up-to-date risk assessment or sentence plan which severely compromised the progress they could make at Dartmoor. The prison itself had done little to react to this situation had there had been no attempt to give offender supervisors clear priorities in dealing with the backlogs.

Following the closure of other prisons in the region, the prison held a large population of sex offenders. Vulnerable prisoners made up more than half the population. The intention was that Dartmoor would prepare these men to take part in sex offender treatment programmes at HMP Channings Wood. However, a significant proportion of the sex offenders held at Dartmoor were judged to be in denial of their offence and there was no provision for them. These men made no progress and so the number was increasing. An effective strategy and suitable programmes needed to be developed to address these men’s offending behaviour.

The resettlement support unit provided effective support to help some men prepare for release. This included some opportunities for release on temporary licence (ROTL). ROTL was an important tool but in the prison as a whole it was poorly managed and there was insufficient attention paid to public protection concerns. Practical resettlement support was generally effective but visits arrangements and support for men to maintain contact with their family and friends was inadequate and did not take sufficient account of the isolated location of the prison.

There is a risk that staff and managers at HMP Dartmoor become paralysed by the things over which they have very little control – the uncertainties over the prison’s future, the state of the buildings, the prison’s location and the make up of the population it holds – and that this becomes an excuse for not addressing the things they can change. The improvements that have been made show what can be done by determined leadership. The prison and regional managers should now focus on reducing levels of violence, building on the improvements made to education, training and work, tackling the backlog of risk assessments and ensuring an effective strategy is in place to deal with the sex offender population.

Nick Hardwick                       April 2014

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Dartmoor

To read the full reports, go to the Ministry of Justice site or follow the links below:

  • HMP Dartmoor, Unannounced inspection of HMP Dartmoor (2-13 December 2013)
  • HMP Dartmoor, An announced inspection of HMP Dartmoor (12 – 16 December 2011)
  • HMP Dartmoor, Unannounced full follow-up inspection of HMP Dartmoor (10-19 March 2010)
  • HMP Dartmoor, Announced inspection of HMP Dartmoor (11-15 February 2008)