The prison was given an inspection in September 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 Northumberland is a category C male prison with a strong emphasis on constructive employment. Over 1,300 prisoners are accommodated in 16 house blocks over a large area.
There was a prompt and active response by managers at the beginning of the COVID-19 restricted regime period. Because some other prisons in the region had suffered outbreaks, Northumberland had from the start of the period taken a considerable number of new receptions, and the provisions to cohort those arriving each day had been effective. On the advice of Public Health England (PHE), prisoners who needed to be isolated were kept on their existing house block to minimise risk of cross-infection, since the buildings were well spaced out.
There had been a stream of communication throughout the period, and good signage on precautions against the spread of infection. However, social distancing was largely confined to organised settings such as queues; there was relatively little of it when staff or prisoners were grouped together. The limited opening up of the regime had gone smoothly, although most prisoners had less time unlocked than in similar prisons at this stage. We were disappointed to find that a few prisoners who showed symptoms were locked in their cells 24 hours a day for up to eight days, without access to a shower or the open air, until a test result became available.
The amount of violence and self-harm had reduced during the COVID-19 period. This was in the context of reducing trends over recent years, which had continued through the first half of 2020, although self-harm had been rising in the last two months. The prison’s regular pattern of meetings to review and plan actions on safety had been paused, but it had taken reasonable measures to flex disciplinary actions in response to the risk of infection, without harming safety and good order. It was a concern that a system of locking individuals in their cells for the whole day, in effect as a form of punishment, had grown without proper authorisation or oversight.
Prisoners generally spoke positively of staff attitudes and behaviour; however, in our survey, a third said that they had experienced intimidation from staff at some time, and those with disabilities were more likely to report this. For many, the short periods of unlock prevented much meaningful interaction. Regular key work (see Glossary of terms) sessions by wing staff had ceased, although members of the programmes team had been making regular contact by in-cell telephone with those who had specific risks or needs.
The residential areas were generally clean and in better condition than a few years ago. However, in a house block with several prisoners with mobility difficulties, the showers were not accessible; we met one prisoner who had not been able to shower since March, as a previous arrangement to shower in a neighbouring house block was not possible during this period.
Work on equality and diversity had in effect ceased, although there were well-formed plans to revive this work in the near future. The chaplaincy had done excellent work, maintaining face-to-face contact and support with prisoners throughout the establishment and providing faith resources.
The health care department had responded well to the pandemic situation, maintaining all essential processes in spite of staffing problems. The mental health team had continued a high level of service, including face-to-face work, as had the clinical substance misuse team, and the psychosocial substance misuse service was working creatively to maintain individual contact. Medicines management had improved, with some specific areas still needing attention.
About 30% of prisoners had jobs in the prison at the time of our visit, and some key workshops had continued to operate throughout this period , with the number increasing recently. However, most prisoners had only one hour a day out of their cell, in addition to collecting meals. This gave more limited time than at most similar prisons for basic activities, such as showering, exercising and using the electronic kiosks to make requests. Those on the induction units often had only 30 minutes rather than an hour a day out of their cell.
The learning and skills function had been unusually active from the beginning of the restricted regime, providing individualised learning materials for those already enrolled in education. Education staff were now back in the establishment and enriching the offer further, although without any classes or face-to-face work. There was innovative use of incentives for prisoners to take part in a range of activities compatible with the restricted regime. Gym staff had begun to offer structured outdoor activities on a limited scale, and the library staff had made books available while the libraries themselves were closed.
Social visits had restarted promptly in July after the national go-ahead had been given, and the arrangements were satisfactory, but the take-up low. The prison did not use video calling for ‘virtual’ visits, which was attributed to deficiencies in broadband access. Legal visits had restarted more recently.
Offender management and sentence planning had continued at a reduced level, but their quality was reduced by the lack of face-to-face contact between the relevant staff and individual prisoners. The only exceptions were for the most urgent milestones, such as parole hearings. There were some backlogs, for example in recategorisation, and delays in transfers to open conditions.
There were some weaknesses in public protection processes; most seriously, the commencement of telephone and mail monitoring for those presenting specific risks was often delayed by days or even weeks at the time of our visit. One significant impact of COVID-19 for a training prison offering offending behaviour programmes was that none of these programmes or individual interventions had taken place, and there were no well-advanced preparations for bringing such work back on stream.
Although about 100 prisoners were released each month, there was too little attention to planning and support for release. In many cases, work to help prisoners plan was beginning much too close to the release date. Although clear data were hard to attain, a significant number of prisoners were not released to permanent and settled accommodation. No prisoner had been released under the available early release provision.
There was an air of positivity and confidence a cross many aspects of the prison’s life and its management; many departments had risen to the challenges of the pandemic situation well. However, in some specific areas of work, management grip was lacking; and while the regime had in many respects moved forward, the prison still needed to seek out and pursue further opportunities to provide as full a regime as possible within the current restraints.
Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
To read the full reports, go to the Ministry of Justice site or follow the links below:
- HMP Northumberland – report (PDF), Report on a scrutiny visit to HMP Northumberland by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (8 and 15–16 September 2020)
- HMP Northumberland, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Northumberland (19 July–4 August 2017)
- HMP Northumberland, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Northumberland (1 – 12 September 2014)
- HMP Northumberland, Unannounced inspection of HMP Northumberland (11-15 June 2012)