HMIP Inspections of Huntercombe

The prison was given an inspection in December 2020, 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 Huntercombe is a category C prison in Oxfordshire and is one of only two prisons in the country with the sole purpose of holding convicted foreign nationals. It held about 400 men at the time of our visit, 15% less than at the previous full inspection in 2017 and slightly more than the uncrowded capacity of 370 prisoners. Lower prisoner numbers contributed to the ability of staff to deliver a consistent regime throughout the pandemic and prisoners were able to have a shower and take outside exercise every day. However, most still spent 23 hours a day in their cells, and this was affecting mental health for some. About a quarter of prisoners had some form of employment, which increased time out of cell, but there were missed opportunities for further expanding activity in a safe way. This was partly because the prison had to wait for the approval of centrally managed recovery plans.

The speedy and highly effective roll-out of video-calling technology had helped prisoners to maintain family relationships throughout the pandemic and showed what the prison was capable of achieving. The governor provided visible and enabling leadership, characterised by clear communication and regular personal engagement with prisoners and staff. A high proportion of staff said that they were supported by managers. Managers and staff had met the demands of COVID-19 well and most prisoners felt that they had been kept safe during the pandemic. There had been no outbreaks since the height of the first wave of the pandemic in April until early December, when a positive test was returned. It was notable that, throughout the pandemic, senior managers had maintained focus on the recommendations for improvement that had been identified at the last full inspection in 2017.

Reception and cohorting arrangements for new arrivals appeared to be effective. Like the rest of the prison, the reception area was clean and a comprehensive assessment process was undertaken for arriving prisoners.

Recorded violence and use of force had remained reasonably low, and well-attended monthly meetings provided adequate strategic oversight of safety. However, a fifth of prisoners in our survey said they felt unsafe and a third that they had been victimised by staff. The latter proportion was higher among both younger and black and minority ethnic prisoners. The reasons for this were unclear, but prisoners made a range of comments about staff, including dismissive attitudes to their concerns about the amount of time locked up, anxiety about immigration cases and concern about inconsistent social distancing. Despite the many friendly interactions that we observed, a number of prisoners said that staff were not always proactive in supporting them and that key work sessions were often not detailed or helpful enough. We leave the prison with a recommendation to explore these findings thoroughly and take necessary action.

There had been no deaths in custody since our full inspection and levels of self-harm had remained at their traditionally low levels. Prisoners at risk of self-harm were supported through a well implemented assessment, care in custody and teamwork case management of prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm ( ACCT) process, which included multidisciplinary case reviews and regular use of professional interpreters. Access to Listeners (prisoners trained by the Samaritans to provide confidential emotional support to fellow prisoners) had been facilitated throughout the pandemic. Prisoners reported that staff usually responded quickly to emergency cell bells.

The physical environment was clean and cells were in good order. Prisoner cleaners and ‘social distancing champions’ were deployed to clean high contact points between cohorts of prisoners being let out of their cells. Management of complaints was effective and prisoner consultation had resumed. Access to legal advice was good. Home Office staff had remained on site and were accessible. The use of the prison incentives scheme to sanction prisoners who were considered to be non-compliant with the Home Office was inappropriate. The prison was following a national policy which allowed the prisons’ incentive scheme to be used to sanction prisoners for non-compliance. Prisoners had a right to challenge the Home Office about immigration matters and should not have been sanctioned by the prison for refusing to sign immigration paperwork. This also confused the prison’s role, in managing and caring for prisoners, with Home Office procedures.

Equality and diversity management structures were in place and good work had been carried out to understand potential equality concerns, although not always to deliver actions. The chaplaincy remained active and had resumed running small faith groups for religious discussion.

Health care was effective. Despite staff shortages, the well managed department continued to deliver essential services. Waiting lists were short for most clinics and external hospital appointments had continued to be facilitated throughout the pandemic. The mental health team provided a responsive one-to-one service and was meeting the demand for services.

At our full inspection in 2017, a serious concern was the poor attention to addressing risk, offending-related needs and release planning. At this scrutiny visit, we were pleased to find that a changed attitude to this area of work had led to very significant and sustained progress. Contact levels between prison offender managers and prisoners had much improved and most prisoners were now well aware of their sentence plan targets. The vast majority of prisoners had an up-to-date OASys (offender assessment of risk and need). While there were still shortcomings in the specialist resettlement support available to prisoners, there were well developed and funded plans to create a resettlement hub to help prisoners manage practical problems, such as housing and debt management, which are known to increase the risk of reoffending. This support was to be available to prisoners being removed to other countries, who constituted the vast majority of discharges. Perhaps most impressively, release on temporary licence (ROTL) had become established to support rehabilitation and family contact, and it had continued during the COVID-19 period. There had been no ROTL failures.

In summary, this is one of the most positive scrutiny visits that we have so far undertaken. The prison was well led and progressive and, while we have identified some concerns that need to be addressed, prisoners generally spoke positively of their experiences at Huntercombe. The prison and HM Prison and Probation Service leadership are to be commended for the work they have done to respond to long-standing shortcomings in rehabilitation and release planning. We look forward in due course to seeing the further development of this work

Charlie Taylor
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
December 2020

Return to Huntercombe

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