HMIP Reports, HMP Guys Marsh

The prison was given an inspection in November 2014 and 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 Guys Marsh is a medium sized category C training prison near Shaftesbury in Dorset that, at the time of this inspection, held 543 adult men. We brought forward this unannounced inspection because of concerning intelligence. We found a prison that was in crisis, where managers and staff had all but lost control. The governor left the prison permanently during the course of the inspection. I wrote to the Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) immediately after the inspection to set out my concerns.

At the time of the inspection, the prison faced challenges common to many prisons. The governor told us the prison was short-staffed and that the arrival of staff from neighbouring prisons which had closed in 2013 had unsettled the culture and not all those staff wanted to be at Guys Marsh. There was a relatively new senior management team. The prison was overcrowded, holding 543 men compared with its certified normal accommodation of 518. The prison drew much of its population from Bristol and Gloucester. The governor believed that the reorganisation of prisons in the region, with more clearly defined specialist functions in preparation for the implementation of the transforming rehabilitation agenda, meant that Guys Marsh was holding a significant number of men who were involved in rival gangs and serious organised crime without sufficient flexibility to split them up by dispersing them elsewhere.

Levels of violence in the prison were very high and many prisoners were frightened. Almost a quarter of prisoners told us they did not feel safe at the time of the inspection. In the six months before the inspection there had been 17 assaults on staff, 53 assaults on prisoners and 19 fights – three times the level at our last inspection. The violence was driven by the supply of drugs, particularly synthetic cannabinoids such as ‘Spice’. Subutex, diverted prescribed medication and illicitly brewed alcohol were also problems. Sixty-five per cent of prisoners told us it was easy to get drugs in the prison and 50% alcohol. We were told much of this trade was led by gangs and by organised crime operating outside the prison. Although the price of the drugs on the streets was low, it was very high in prison, so there were attempts to get large quantities in – even if there were significant interceptions, big profits could be made. Most of the drugs were legal outside the prison and there was no effective way to test for them so the risks of supply were low. There had been a number of medical emergencies and hospital admissions associated with the consumption of Spice.

The supply of drugs led to debt and debts were enforced by violence or threats of violence to prisoners or their family and associates outside the prison. Gangs operated openly in the prison and I had a civil ‘meeting’ with some prisoners who appeared to be operating unimpeded as a gang with a leader and who boasted to me about the power they wielded in the prison. Security staff and managers were well focused on these challenges and worked hard to address them. There had been some large drug finds and some key players in the violence had been identified and moved elsewhere. However, the prison needed much more support from the Prison Service and other agencies to tackle these problems effectively.

Problems of safety were at their worst on Saxon wing, the drug treatment wing, which contained a mix of men who were there for treatment and those who were there for their own protection – often because of drug debts. Seventy-one per cent of the prisoners there told us they had felt unsafe at some time and 46% felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. Eighty-two per cent said it was easy to get drugs in the prison and 41% said they had developed a drug problem there. The lack of safety on the wing and the ready supply of drugs seriously undermined its treatment role.

Some prisoners sought sanctuary in the segregation unit. There were frequent ‘incidents at height’ where men climbed onto dangerously high structures that were out of the normal reach of staff in the belief that once they were back under control they would be taken down to the segregation unit where they would be safe. There was little attempt to reintegrate these men on the wings and most were moved out of the prison. When I went to the segregation unit, unusually there was one vacant cell; staff there asked me not to tell anyone about it because they did not want to encourage prisoners to create an incident so that they would be brought down to occupy it. One prisoner was in the segregation unit because he has assaulted a member of staff and he too was due to be moved out of the prison; it would be very dangerous indeed if desperate prisoners got the idea that assaulting staff was a quick way to get a move to another safer prison. Because the segregation was usually full, some prisoners self-isolated on the wings. These men stayed hiding in their cells, in squalid conditions, with abuse shouted through the door and all sorts pushed under it, rarely venturing out and having their food bought to them by staff. I was told by prisoners and staff that they suspected gangs were threatening some prisoners to request a move to a different part of the prison so that they could then be forced to act as distribution points for drugs. Not surprisingly perhaps, levels of use of force by staff were high and we were concerned that force was not properly used or supervised. The high levels of bullying and debt were linked to high levels of self-harm, although care for men at risk was generally good. It was to the staff’s credit that despite everything else going on there had been no self-inflicted deaths.

For prisoners who could avoid trouble, conditions were generally reasonable. Most staff relationships with prisoners were good and these prevented the prison from sinking further. We saw some caring interactions, although a minority of staff were disinterested. Eighty-five per cent of prisoners told us staff treated them with respect, compared with 77% in similar prisons. Prisoners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were less positive and many complained about victimisation by staff. We did not find evidence of this but the prison needed to do more to understand these perceptions and, if necessary, address them. The chaplaincy played an important and effective role in the prison. The external environment and that of the smaller units was good. Seventy per cent of prisoners on the first night unit were sharing cells designed for one, but most prisoners had a reasonable single cell. However, we found some cells in poor condition with unscreened toilets, graffiti and no furniture apart from beds. The offensive display policy was not enforced.

Health care was generally good and mental health care, in particular, was good and improving. There were high levels of mental health need and more than one in 10 of prisoners were on the mental health team’s caseload.

HMP Guys Marsh was a training prison but provision had deteriorated sharply since the last inspection. Ofsted judged the overall effectiveness of learning and skills and work as inadequate – its lowest grade. The recent appointment of new and experienced staff was beginning to have an impact but plans to improve provision were hampered by staff shortages. We found a third of prisoners locked in their cells during the working day, and 80% of the population on Saxon wing were locked in their cells when I visited in the middle of the working day. There were full time activity places for only about four out of five prisoners. About one in eight were unemployed and they were let out of their cells for less than three hours a day. Almost 100 of the others were employed in low skilled wing work that did not keep them fully occupied. Despite the fact that Guys Marsh was a training prison, only 16% of prisoners were on education or training courses. There was not enough work for some workshops and attendance was poor. For those in real work, learning or skills, the quality of teaching, coaching and learning was generally good and success rates were high in vocational courses but less so in basic skills such as English and maths. There was a good library but access to it was too limited. PE provision was good.

The prison relied heavily on peer mentors for some essential tasks. These prisoners did a good and sometimes vital job but we were concerned that they sometimes had access to confidential information and supervision was weak. In view of the amount of bullying that was going on, there was an obvious risk that mentors would be pressurised to provide information or commit other offences.

The overall management of resettlement was disjointed and inadequate. Offender management was exceptionally poor. Staff in the offender unit were new and had insufficient training and supervision. They were frequently redeployed to other duties. As a consequence, offender supervisors had little contact with the prisoners for whom they were responsible, some prisoners had no sentence plans and there was a large backlog of assessments. Offender supervisors used a recording system that was inaccessible to staff in other roles in the prison which meant communication between them was very poor. Some prisoners were recategorised without an up-to-date assessment of their risks and, in at least one case, without ever having met or spoken to their offender supervisor or offender manager.

We were particularly concerned about very weak arrangements for protecting the public from highrisk prisoners after release. Practical resettlement support was variable and while staff in some areas did good work, there were no systematic arrangements to ensure prisoners’ needs were identified and addressed before release.

At a time when we are seeing some overall improvement in the system, HMP Guys Marsh stands out as an establishment of great concern. Regional managers began to take decisive action during the inspection but real risks remain and turning the prison round will take sustained support from the Prison Service nationally. The failures of the prison at the time of this inspection posed unacceptable risks to the public, staff and prisoners and this cannot be allowed to continue. 

Nick Hardwick                                   March 2015

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Guys Marsh

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

  • HMP Guys Marsh, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Guys Marsh (10 – 21 November 2014)
  • HMP Guys Marsh, Unannounced short follow-up inspection of HMP Guys Marsh (25–27 February 2013)
  • HMP Guys Marsh, Announced inspection of HMP Guys Marsh (4–8 January 2010)
  • HMP/YOI Guys Marsh, Unannounced short follow-up inspection of HMP and YOI Guys Marsh (21-23 January 2008)