HMIP Inspections of HMP & YOI Low Newton

The prison was given an inspection in late 2014, 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 Low Newton is a women’s local prison situated near Durham that serves courts in the northeast of England, and also holds sentenced women. At the time of this inspection the prison was taking women from all over the north of England because of overcrowding elsewhere; as a result of this a third of the population was 100 miles or more away from home and family.

The prison’s population was the most complex we have seen. It held women who were remanded in custody through to those with indeterminate sentences, and was one of only two women’s prisons holding restricted status prisoners (the female equivalent of a high security A classification). There were 10 young women under 21, the youngest of whom was 19, and seven women over 60, the oldest of whom was 66. Levels of need in the population were extremely high, with more than threequarters of the population receiving treatment or therapy for their mental health. Over a third said they had a disability of some sort, and 83% were taking medication. Over 40% said they had problems with drugs and nearly a third said the same about alcohol. About a third of the population were receiving opiate substitution treatment at the time of the inspection. For around half it was their first time in prison, and 60% had children under the age of 18 years.

 Some of the mental health treatment required was very complex and some prison officers were beginning to discuss informally whether it was appropriate for them to wear uniform given the predominantly caring role they performed. It was not an unreasonable view as in many ways the services provided were more appropriate to a hospital than a prison. But a prison can never be a hospital and we had particular concerns about a small number of women who had been remanded at the prison ‘for their own protection’. These women had significant mental health problems and prison was not an appropriate ‘place of safety’ for them.

In response to the high level of complex demand in the population, mental health services had improved both in terms of capacity and breadth and were generally very good overall. The care provided in the Primrose Unit for women with personality disorders and the groundbreaking PIPE unit (a ‘psychologically informed planned environment’) was outstanding; both were key components of the national offender personality disorder pathway. Primary physical health care was also generally very good although there were long waiting lists for some services. Despite the good quality of health services provided, overall many women were negative about them. We did not think the evidence supported these criticisms and more needed to be done to manage expectations and set appropriate boundaries about what could be provided.

A more coordinated approach to managing the many women with a multitude of complex needs was needed to ensure consistency and a more holistic approach. In common with other women’s prisons, although the number of incidents of self-harm remained high, levels of self-harm had reduced and it was notable that six women accounted for 53% of such incidents in the months prior to our inspection. Levels of care for these women were generally good. There was a danger that because of the high number of very complex cases, women with ‘ordinary’ levels of need to be found in the prison (which by any objective measure was still very high) did not receive the attention they required. For example, we found two young adults who were being disciplined by being locked up alone in their cells for most of the day with very little to occupy them, despite being known to be at risk of suicide or self-harm.

As we have reported in other women’s prison inspections, women had long waits in courts cells after they had been dealt with, before they were moved to the prison. This was exacerbated by the long distances women had to travel to the prison. Escorts continued to be shared with male prisoners and women often arrived late in the evening because the prison was the last drop off point for escorts; unlike male prisons, it did not have a specific cut off time for new arrivals. Nevertheless, reception was clean and welcoming and first night processes were good.

Most women told us they felt safe at the prison although 40% said they had felt unsafe at some time. However, there were few serious incidents and poor behaviour was well managed, often without recourse to formal disciplinary processes, which were in any case well managed. Security was proportionate to the population but while there was little concrete evidence of excessive drug availability, 41% of women in our survey said it was easy to obtain illegal drugs, a claim that was repeated by women and staff throughout the inspection. Managers needed to interrogate these perceptions and also remain vigilant to the threats posed. Demand for substances misuse services was very high but care was generally good, although the lack of a dedicated dual diagnosis service was a gap.

Living conditions were generally good, as was the food provided, and most women could eat together and some could self-cater. Relationships were very strong and underpinned much of the good work done at the prison, and personal officers were knowledgeable about the women in their care and provided some excellent support. Work in equalities and diversity was individualised and most women from the protected characteristics reported positively, although those with a disability were less positive about some outcomes. Complaints were generally dealt with well, but better scrutiny by senior managers was required.

Time out of cell was good and the regimes were delivered consistently and reliably. However, the time available for outside exercise was limited and there were clashes in the regime which meant opportunities to go outside in the fresh air were somewhat limited. There were sufficient purposeful activities for all women to work or attend education and the ‘women-centred’ approach adopted to curriculum planning meant that focus was appropriately on enhancing personal and social skills, employability and enterprise skills. There were some particularly good and innovative enrichment activities offered that helped to develop confidence, self-esteem and expression. While achievement of qualifications was generally good, improvements were needed in the key area of English at levels 1 and 2. The library and gym provided good support, although access to recreational gym was limited. Work had recently begun to promote a positive body image.

The prison had a sound understanding of the resettlement needs of the many groups of women held, and some good services were provided, although we felt that release on temporary licence was underused. Offender management work was generally good and benefited from a stable and well established team. However, the quality and timeliness of some reports needed to be improved and elements of public protection work needed tightening. Children and families work was very good, although there were gaps in support for women who had been victimised or abused before their imprisonment. Most resettlement needs were identified on arrival, but there was no systematic prerelease process to check that needs had been addressed, and despite some good efforts too many women were being released with nowhere to live. Most other areas of resettlement support were strong.

Low Newton is a hugely complex prison holding a challenging and very vulnerable population mix. It is notable that despite these complexities, the approach to providing a safe and decent environment is humane and caring, and good attention is also paid to the essential elements of providing a purposeful and rehabilitative regime where women are encouraged to progress and address elements of risk. We have identified some areas where they still need to improve, but managers and staff at the prison should be commended for the valuable work they do for the women held and the public as a whole. In some cases, the mix of professionalism and compassion I witnessed being delivered to some very troubled women was very moving. But however good the level of care offered, the question remains about why some of these obviously very ill and troubled women are in prison at all, rather than in a health setting which would be much more appropriate for their needs. 

Nick Hardwick                                   March 2015

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Low Newton

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


  • HMP & YOI Low Newton, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP & YOI Low Newton (29 September – 10 October 2014).
  • HMP Low Newton, Announced inspection of HMP Low Newton (31 October – 4 November 2011)
  • HMP/YOI Low Newton, Unannounced short follow-up inspection of HMP/YOI Low Newton (20-23 April 2009)