HMIP Reports on HMP Erlestoke

The prison was given an inspection in August 2020, and as a result of this inspection the Inspectors wrote to the Secretary of State raising their concerns. This letter, and the Secretary of State’s reply can be  found by following the links below.  In their latest report the inspectors said:

“This report presents the findings from our scrutiny visit to HMP Erlestoke to report on the conditions and treatment of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Erlestoke is a category C prison in Wiltshire, holding nearly 500 prisoners. The majority were serving lengthy sentences, about a third of which were indeterminate or life sentences.

The management team had appropriately imposed restrictions and implemented quarantine and shielding arrangements (see Glossary of terms) to manage the risks associated with the COVID-19 virus. There had been one confirmed COVID-19 case among prisoners at the start of the pandemic, but no further cases for four months.

Although the amount of time prisoners could spend out of their cells had been increased in the early stages of lockdown, during our visit, most prisoners still only received 45-minute sessions in the morning and the afternoon, and an additional half an hour one evening a week. Prisoners reported being frustrated about daily delays in the delivery of this limited regime, and about the lack of activity.

A batch of regime recovery management plans (see Exceptional delivery models (EDMs) in Glossary of terms) had received national approval, but they were overly restrictive and offered little in the way of additional activities or more time out of prisoners’ cells.

Despite prisoners being locked up for most of the day, the level of assaults had remained similar compared with before the lockdown. In our survey, a quarter of prisoners reported feeling unsafe. Incidents involving the use of force had more than doubled since the beginning of lockdown and were often used to enforce the restricted regime. There had also been a spike in the number of serious incidents of indiscipline in the weeks before, during and after the scrutiny visit.

 Incidences of self-harm had increased significantly since the lockdown and were on an upward trajectory. There were deficiencies in the assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management process for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm, and those who had chosen to self-isolate received little additional support from the prison. They received less time out of their cell and not all had access to the open air. The safer custody support line designed to enable family and friends to raise concerns about prisoners was poorly advertised. We also found that the dedicated support line for prisoners was not working.

A lack of leadership and oversight of the segregation unit was especially concerning. We saw treatment that was degrading and unacceptable. We found one prisoner and were made aware of two others who had been without toilets, running water and a cell call bell system for approximately two weeks. They had been given buckets while waiting for cell toilets to be fixed. There were also serious safeguarding concerns about the lack of social care provision. We found vulnerable adults who had been left unable to complete basic tasks, such as cleaning themselves or their cells properly, or collecting food.

The suspension of strategic and partnership meetings at the start of the pandemic had created gaps in oversight and delivery. The performance of the facilities management provider and its backlog of repairs had contributed to poor living conditions for many. Most residential units were poorly maintained, and some were dilapidated. We found broken cell windows with sharp shards of glass, damaged observation panels, blocked toilets and showers that were not working. The older units required painting, and we saw graffiti, including some that was racist. Communal areas were dirty, especially in the older units, and cleaning regimes designed to help with infection control had ceased. We also saw little evidence of social distancing (see Glossary of terms) by staff or prisoners in residential units.

While our survey suggested that staff treated prisoners with respect, 39% of prisoners also felt victimised by staff. Relationships did not appear to be purposeful, and prisoners reported difficulties in getting day-to-day issues resolved. The key worker scheme (see Glossary of terms) was no longer effective. We witnessed a failure to challenge poor behaviour or enforce rules. Most prisoners we spoke to told us that the incentives scheme was ineffective – antisocial behaviour was rewarded and prisoners often resorted to it to get their needs met.

Equality was poorly promoted. Equality and diversity meetings were not held frequently enough to be instructive. In our survey, a quarter of prisoners identified as being from a black, Asian, mixed or minority ethnic background. They had much poorer perceptions of their treatment than their white counterparts. Young people under the age of 25 also reported less favourably, and only 36% in our survey felt staff treated them with respect.

Security staff had been proactive in intercepting drugs, but in our survey 32% of prisoners still said it was easy to get drugs in the prison. Significant amounts of hooch had also been found. Support for prisoners with drug and alcohol problems remained generally good, but it was disappointing that use of the newly developed drug recovery unit had been put on hold due to its designation as the reverse cohort unit ( RCU, see Glossary of terms).

Health services were mostly reasonable given the regime’s constraints, but primary care nursing services were particularly stretched and many prisoners expressed dissatisfaction with the level of support provided.

Although workshops and face-to-face education no longer took place and only around 30 prisoners were employed in non-unit-based activity, the education provider had created distance learning packages, delivering some qualifications. The 22 prisoners studying for Open University degrees had received good support. The library provision had continued, offering a twice weekly trolley service, through which prisoners could order and receive books. Physical education instructors provided four outside gym sessions for each unit every week, with varied and popular content.

The support in place for prisoners to maintain contact with their family was disappointing. Social visits had only resumed two weeks before our visit and take-up was very low. Many prisoners’ families lived far away from the prison. The short duration of visits, together with restrictions, such as the prohibition on physical contact, meant that for many families, visits were not a realistic or worthwhile option. Three visitors had already been banned from visiting for three months for breaching the prohibition on physical contact. Prisoners did not have access to in-cell telephony and some complained of poor access to landing telephones during their limited time out of cell. It had taken far too long to introduce video calls, which would have offset these problems – the facility was not due for full implementation until the beginning of September.

The offender management unit had maintained good staffing levels, which included probation staff who had all remained on site throughout most of the period. The department had continued with face-to-face contact in more complex cases, although some work was done by telephone or written correspondence.

For most prisoners, there was little opportunity to progress. In fact, the prison appeared to have lost its purpose, which was to address the offending behaviour and reduce the risks of long-term offenders. During our visit, the prison had just resumed some programme work, but unduly restrictive national directives, which were inconsistent with access to work and other purposeful activity, meant this could mostly only be delivered on a one-to-one basis. The withdrawal of HM Prison and Probation Service training for programme facilitators compounded the problem. There appeared to be little realistic prospect of the prison being able to address the substantial backlog of programme work, given current restrictions. Since the prison was a national resource for programme work, prisoners waiting to be transferred to Erlestoke to have their needs addressed were likely to feel the impact of these problems.

Overall, this was a very troubling visit, and if this had been a full inspection as part of our normal inspection programme, I would have given serious consideration as to whether the Urgent Notification procedure should be invoked. Instead, following the published methodology for Scrutiny Visit inspections, I wrote to the Secretary of State (see Appendix III) on 26 August 2020. In that letter, and in the inspection debriefing paper that accompanied it, I set out in detail the concerns that needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Some of those issues should be amenable to local resolution, if effective leadership can be brought to bear. Others appear to be systemic, arising from the apparent inflexibility of the recovery programme. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic at HMP Erlestoke has led to a less safe, less decent and less purposeful prison. I am in no doubt that well-led and properly supported local innovation and flexibility are now urgently needed to restore the acceptable treatment and conditions of the prisoners held there. I have now received a written response from the Secretary of State (see Appendix IV), which in effect is an Action Plan to address the issues raised in this report. In due course HM Inspectorate of Prisons will return to Erlestoke to report on progress.

Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
August 2020

Return to Erlestoke

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