HMIP Inspection of Brixton

The prison was given an inspection in March 2019, 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 Brixton is a category C men’s resettlement prison situated in the heart of south London. This year marks 200 years since it opened. At the time of this latest inspection, it held around 740 prisoners, of whom more than 200 were sex offenders. In many ways it is a very traditional inner-city jail, with all the challenges that such institutions face. However, this inspection showed that with focused leadership, some bold decision-making and a highly committed staff group, much can be achieved even in the most challenging of circumstances.

At the time of the last inspection in January 2017, we found that the prison was fundamentally unsafe, and we gave our lowest judgement of ‘poor’ for both safety and purposeful activity. Respect was on that occasion judged to be ‘not sufficiently good’ and resettlement was ‘reasonably good’. Brixton is now a prison in transition, with many new staff, a cohort of prisoners that has changed in nature, and a further clarification in role (since the last inspection it no longer has a category D resettlement function). The fact that it is in a state of transition might go some way to explaining why there have been changes in each of our healthy prison assessments – three showing improvement and one, rehabilitation and release planning, slipping back to be ‘not sufficiently good’.

It is no exaggeration to say that in the two years since the last inspection, there has been a transformation in some key areas of the prison’s performance. The key to much of what has happened is, in my view, to be found in the determined, pragmatic and bold approach taken to dealing with the problem of illicit drugs which had been dominating prison life and driving very high levels of violence. Two years ago, some 50% of prisoners told us it was easy to get hold of drugs. That figure has now reduced to 30%. The positive rate for mandatory drug tests was 25% at the last inspection, but at that time the figure did not include new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as Spice, which in all probability, based upon what we have seen elsewhere, would have pushed the figure up to around 35% or higher. The current figure, including NPS, sits at 15%.

This dramatic improvement has not come about by chance. There had been a number of what could be described as routine security initiatives, such as scanning post for drug-impregnated paper, putting up security netting and responding in a timely way to intelligence reports. But in addition to all of this, the prison was faced with the question of how to respond to very clear intelligence that prisoners released on temporary licence were being pressurised to bring drugs back into the prison, usually concealed within their body and therefore undetectable by the technology available to the establishment. The decision was taken to stop the use of release on temporary licence (ROTL), and the evidence shows that this clearly had a huge impact on the availability of drugs. This was obviously a very serious step to take, and there was some concern that HM Inspectorate of Prisons would criticise the decision. On the contrary, my view is that this was precisely the type of bold, strategic decision that senior management needed to take when faced with a problem that was making the prison dangerous for both prisoners and staff, and therefore unable to achieve improvements in many areas of prison life. Far from criticising, I congratulate the senior management for having the courage to take this essential step. I believe the right balance was struck between assessing the impact that losing ROTL opportunities would have for some prisoners, and the catastrophic effect that illicit drugs were having within the prison. Clearly this is a policy that will need to be regularly reviewed to ensure that it remains a proportionate measure particularly if, for instance, the prison were to be equipped with the more effective detection equipment that is now available elsewhere.

The improvement in performance against illicit drugs had unsurprisingly been followed by a decrease in violence. When one considers the overall trends in prisons in recent times, this was a remarkable achievement for a prison such as Brixton. The whole atmosphere within the prison had changed, and was far more relaxed and constructive than in the past. There were of course still many challenges. Living conditions were far from acceptable. Too many prisoners lived in overcrowded cells that were much too small, and the amount of time that prisoners were out of their cells varied from wing to wing. Many had a reasonable amount of time unlocked, but some had a very poor regime.

Our colleagues from Ofsted judged that there had been significant improvement in the provision of education, skills and learning which, in the space of two years, was creditable. Nevertheless, there was still much to do. It must become a priority to give sex offenders proper access to training and meaningful work, and also access to interventions that can help them address their offending behaviour. It would be quite wrong if a perception were to be allowed to take hold that large numbers of sex offenders had been moved to Brixton to stabilise the prison (whether or not this was the case) and that the prison had then failed to meet their particular needs and risks.

The decline in our assessment of what was being provided in terms of rehabilitation and release planning was disappointing, but perhaps not entirely unexpected given the focus that had been put on dealing with other issues. Nevertheless, it was concerning that offender assessment system (OASys) reports, a key tool in offender and risk management, were either missing or out of date in more than two-thirds of cases. This was a systemic failure that we have seen in far too many prisons, and needs effective action at regional or even national level. We have made this point many times before, but disappointingly little seems to have been done in terms of remedial action.

Overall, this was a heartening inspection of what has traditionally been a very difficult prison to run well. Although as an inspectorate we focus on the treatment and conditions experienced by prisoners, it would be perverse were we not to reflect on the impact of good leadership and a committed staff group. Both were clear to see at Brixton. As an indication of how the staff were fully behind what had happened, we were told that in the space of two years, staff sickness levels had dropped from 25% to 4.6%. I also took note of the fact that in the short time since the last inspection, 68% of HMIP recommendations had been fully or partially achieved. Brixton will always be a difficult prison to keep safe, decent and purposeful. My hope is that the progress of the past two years does not turn out to be a temporary blip, and that the improvements we saw can be sustained into the future. Our judgements were that outcomes in two areas were ‘not sufficiently good’, so there is no room at all for complacency, but at the same time there should be some satisfaction drawn from what has been achieved

 Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM                                         May 2019

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Return to Brixton

To read the full reports follow the links below:

  • HMP Brixton (4.67 MB), Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Brixton (4 March 2019, 11-15 March 2019)
  • HMP Brixton (539.58 kB), Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Brixton (3–4, 9–13 January 2017)
  • HMP Brixton, Report on an announced inspection of HMP Brixton (3 – 7 November 2014)
  • HMP Brixton, Unannounced inspection of HMP Brixton (1–12 July 2013)
  • HMP Brixton, Unannounced full follow-up inspection of HMP Brixton (1 – 10 December 2010)
  • HMP Brixton, An announced inspection of HMP Brixton (28 April – 2 May 2008)