The prison was inspected in August 2020. The inspection was a “Scrutiny Visit”, which is effectively a shortened version of a full inspection to make allowances for the disruption caused by Covid 19. The full reports can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:
“This report discusses the findings from a scrutiny visit (SV) to HMP Preston. The SV methodology develops the ‘short scrutiny visit’ (SSV, see Glossary of terms) approach that HMI Prisons has used to provide independent oversight of custodial establishments since April 2020. Our previous approach monitored outcomes for prisoners in a small number of key areas at a time when regimes were severely restricted. While SVs are still far more limited in scope than our full inspections, they are increasing the intensity of scrutiny as prisons enter a phase of recovery. SVs examine the treatment and conditions of prisoners in greater detail, and focus in particular on the pace of recovery and proportionality of treatment, while ensuring the safest possible inspection practices.
HMP Preston is a local prison which, at the time of our visit, held around 650 adult males drawn from Lancashire and other parts of the North West. While the population was lower than at our previous inspection in 2017, the prison was still severely overcrowded. As we have found elsewhere, the early release schemes brought in to relieve pressure on places during the pandemic had been ineffective, with no prisoners released following assessment. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had classed the prison as a COVID-19 outbreak site until 10 July. At the time of our visit, there were no confirmed prisoner cases. A small number of staff were shielding or away from work while awaiting test results.
The prison dates from the 18th century, and some of the accommodation was deteriorating or, as in the case of the very cramped reception area, barely fit for purpose. In such areas, social distancing was all but impossible, and it was difficult in much of the rest of the prison because of its cramped design and overcrowding. We saw few attempts by staff and prisoners to socially distance even where it was achievable.
The reverse cohort unit (RCU, see Glossary of terms) was large and busy. It was evident that it could not be run practically in line with best practices – such as the consistent separation of prisoners arriving on different days – while also delivering basic facilities, such as daily showers and telephone calls. This undermined the effectiveness of the unit, as did the staff from other wings walking unnecessarily through the RCU.
While most prisoners understood the reasons for the restrictions imposed in March 2020, many told us they were confused and concerned about the possible next steps. There had been a lack of investment in communications technology, and the prison had no in-cell telephones or prisoner information kiosks, and no prison television channel. This particularly disadvantaged prisoners with literacy or language difficulties.
Nearly all prisoners received the restricted regime reliably, including daily access to telephones and showers, and exercise in the open air six days a week. However, most were still locked up for 22.5 hours a day, usually in shared cells that were not designed to hold more than one prisoner. Isolated prisoners (those symptomatic or positive for COVID-19, see Glossary of terms) were allowed out of their cells for only 15 minutes a week to shower. This was unacceptable and, given that there was only one such prisoner during our visit, wholly avoidable.
Following an initial reduction, the incidence of violence was now starting to increase. Use of force had increased in May and June 2020 to levels above those before the regime had been restricted, but it had started to reduce again. There was evidence that some use of force had resulted from prisoners being frustrated at the prolonged restrictions and a lack of purposeful activity. While managers tackled inappropriate use of force robustly where it was identified, we were concerned to find that staff often did not switch on body-worn cameras when they should have used them. This required a stronger management response.
Self-harm was at a similar level to that before the restricted regime was imposed. Assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm was generally reasonable, and Listeners (see Glossary of terms) were available at most times.
There was a very high level of mental health need in the prison. In our survey, two-thirds of prisoners said they had mental health problems and 11 were waiting to be transferred to a secure hospital. Some prisoners we interviewed described a decline in their mental well-being during the restricted regime.
Primary and mental health services were stretched, and there were long waits for routine and some urgent assessments. Health care staff were working hard to improve matters and there were early signs of recovery, as staff who had been shielding returned to work. The psychosocial support team had a limited presence in the main prison but had recently resumed one-to-one work in the substance misuse recovery unit. In a positive move, wing staff had also supported peer workers to resume some useful group support in the recovery unit.
We observed generally good staff-prisoner relationships, although there were routine welfare checks only for the most vulnerable groups. Prisoner consultation had recently resumed. The prison was clean and additional cleaning was being carried out daily. Prisoners also reported good access to cleaning materials for their cells.
Strategic oversight of equality work had also recently resumed; this was needed given some negative reporting by black and ethnic minority prisoners in our survey. Support for prisoners who did not speak English was generally limited, and there was little translated material about the regime. Despite significant staff shortages, the chaplaincy had maintained a presence in the establishment.
Education providers had not yet returned to the prison and few prisoners were in work. Library books and activity packs were distributed to wings, but many prisoners we spoke with did not know about the latter.
There was some good family support work. Social visits had been reintroduced, but they had been suspended shortly after as a result of local area restrictions. Video calling to family and friends was appreciated by most of the prisoners who had used it, but had only been available for just over a week. Prisoners had regular access to telephones but often at times that their families were at work or otherwise unavailable, and calls were limited to 15 minutes. The prison had not used the HMPPS-supplied mobile phones creatively to overcome this problem.
Sentence planning and risk assessment processes were up to date, which was positive, and most risk management procedures were working reasonably effectively. However, the continuing lack of face-to-face interviews limited the effectiveness of some provision. No prisoners had been released since March 2020 without some form of accommodation, which was positive.
Managers and staff at Preston had shown considerable resilience in managing the changing demands of the COVID-19 period. Prisoners had shown similar fortitude, although the costs to their mental health of such an extended period of restriction were increasingly evident. There were some obvious changes that the prison should have made to improve matters, such as ensuring that prisoners in protective isolation had more time out of cell. More ambition in general would also have improved the pace of recovery, and alleviated the evident and growing strain on prisoners. This is partly a matter for local managers, but there was no doubt that they needed to feel they had the autonomy from HMPPS to innovate.
At our previous full inspection, we commented that Preston had many strengths but that with more imagination it could and should deliver more. That judgement also held true during this scrutiny visit.
Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
To read the full report from the inspectors, follow the links below to the Ministry of Justice web site:
- HMP Preston – report (PDF), Report on a scrutiny visit to HMP Preston by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, August 2020
- HMP Preston, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Preston (6-17 March 2017)
- HMP Preston, Unannounced inspection of HMP Preston (31 March – 11 April 2014)
- HMP Preston, Unannounced short follow-up inspection of HMP Preston (10 – 12 April 2012)
- HMP Preston, Announced inspection of HMP Preston (10-14 August 2009)
- HMP Preston, Unannounced short follow-up inspection of HMP Preston (23-25 January 2008)