HMIP Reports, HMP Bristol

The prison was given an inspection in Spring 2017, 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 Bristol is a category B local prison holding, at the time of this inspection, 543 male prisoners. The prison is a mixture of Victorian and later 20th-century buildings, situated in a residential area of the city. The last inspection of Bristol was carried out between September and October 2014, and was an announced inspection in response to serious concerns about the prison that had been raised by the previous inspection in May 2013. The 2014 inspection found that some progress had been made, but that further improvement was required. That inspection found that outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good across all four of our healthy prison tests. This latest inspection found that standards had declined, that the prison was now less safe than two years before, and that the purposeful activity assessment had sunk to the lowest possible. In the areas of respect and resettlement, the prison’s performance remained not sufficiently good. Despite these very disturbing findings, and the fact that many aspects of the treatment and conditions of prisoners were totally unacceptable, there were some grounds for cautious optimism.

Prisoners at Bristol were transient and had multifarious needs .In our survey, more than half reported having problems with emotional well-being or their mental health. Although 70% of the population were aged under 40, 62% of them were on some form of medication. Over 30% entered the prison with a drug problem, and 20% with an alcohol problem. To make matters worse, far too many prisoners said that they felt unsafe in the prison. A third of the prisoners we surveyed said that they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection, which was double the figure in 2014 and much higher than at similar prisons. Fifty-nine per cent reported feeling unsafe at some point during their stay in Bristol, up from 41% at the last inspection.

In the area of safety, the sad fact was that prisoners’ perceptions were matched by reality. Violence towards staff and between prisoners was very high. Levels of self-harm had risen quite dramatically, and there had been seven self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection, with five in the past 12 months alone. The use of force by staff was much higher than at the last inspection, but we were satisfied that it was proportionate to the levels of violence. As in many prisons, much of the violence was related to drugs and debt. The mandatory drug testing positive rate of 30% was extraordinarily high, and showed that the 53% of prisoners who told us that it was easy to get illicit drugs in the prison were not wrong. Until the prison becomes a safer place in which either to live or work, it is hard to see how progress can be made in other areas, and this must be the first priority for the prison’s leadership.

The physical environment at Bristol, from an external perspective, looked reasonable. However, a different picture emerged once one entered the residential wings. Most were dirty and dilapidated. It was common to see broken glass, peeling ceilings , broken fittings, graffiti and damaged floors. Showers were in poor condition. The infestation of cockroaches noted at the time of the last inspection was still present. One prisoner showed me several large cockroaches in his cell. He explained that at night he did not use his in -cell toilet cubicle because he was fed up with inadvertently crunching the insects under his bare feet in the dark. Instead, he urinated in his sink, which was closer to his bed. The lack of investment in the buildings was plain to see, and was the major cause of the disrespectful living conditions to which too many prisoners were subjected.

Despite all this, it is notable that relationships be tween staff and prisoners we re reasonably good. In our survey, over two-thirds of prisoners said that staff treated them respectfully, although this was a significant decrease from the time of the last inspection. HMP Bristol had been understaffed for far too long, and this was the main reason why the regime for prisoners had been heavily restricted for much of the past two years. Regime restrictions had reduced the amount of time that prisoners had been unlocked, and had, on occasion, meant that education, training and work had been cancelled. However, staff shortages alone did not account for prisoners’ woeful attendance at activities. The importance of education, training and work was just not given a high enough priority across the prison and few prisoners attended. On average, 30–40% of prisoners attended their sessions. Most of those who did not attend were locked in their cells, and we found that 50% of prisoners were locked in their cells during the day.

Staff shortages had also contributed to insufficiently good performance by the prison in preparing prisoners for release. Offender supervisor contact with prisoners was limited because of staff being drawn away to other duties. The high turnover of prisoners meant that there were around 100 releases each month, and much good work was being done to support prisoners. However, even with the creditable efforts that were being made, a third of prisoners were being released homeless or to temporary accommodation.

Despite the poor outcomes for prisoners that are set out in this report, it should not be assumed that HMP Bristol is an institution on the brink of collapse. An HM Inspectorate of Prisons inspection is inevitably something of a snapshot in time, describing what we found at the time of the inspection. However, it is important to consider the wider context in which a prison underperforms, and to make a judgement about whether it is moving in the right direction.

At Bristol, it became very clear to us that many of the poor outcomes were directly related to chronic staff shortages and a history of underinvestment in the prison. This had coincided with a deluge of illicit drugs, fuelling violence, debt, self-harm and physical and mental illness among prisoners. The lack of staff and the poor physical environment on the wings had merely added to the problems.

Despite these enormous challenges, there were grounds for thinking that improvement would soon be seen. More staff were due to arrive at Bristol, and there were plans to improve conditions in some of the units. In fact, there were credible plans for improvement in many areas of prison life. There were early indications that these plans were having an impact. For instance, violence had reduced in the past few months, and there were some signs that new psychoactive substances (NPS) were becoming less prevalent in the prison.

However, progress was inevitably fragile, and if these and other improvements are to take hold, we believe it is essential that the energetic and committed leadership of HMP Bristol is allowed to build on the foundations it has laid. All too often, we see that changes in leadership have contributed to a lack of direction and a decline in performance. There is no reason why, with increases in staff numbers, well-directed investment and consistent leadership from the senior team, Bristol should not deliver better outcomes for prisoners in the future.

Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM

May 2017

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Return to Bristol

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

  • HMP Bristol (1015.47 kB), Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Bristol (6-17 March 2017)
  • HMP Bristol, Report on an announced inspection of HMP Bristol (29 September – 3 October 2014)
  • HMP Bristol, Unannounced inspection of HMP Bristol (6–17 May 2013)
  • HMP Bristol , Announced inspection of HMP Bristol (4-8 January 2010)
  • HMP Bristol, Unannounced short follow-up inspection of HMP Bristol (3-6 March 2008)