HMIP Inspections of Chelmsford

The prison was inspected in June 2018. In their report the inspectors said;

HMP Chelmsford, a medium-sized local prison, held just under 700 men at the time of this inspection. The population mainly consisted of adult men who were either remanded by the courts or were awaiting or serving a prison sentence. The prison also held over 70 young adults. The layout of the prison was unusual, comprising older buildings dating back to the 1830s as well as modern accommodation. At our last inspection in 2016, we reported that progress had stalled and that outcomes had deteriorated, which led to the prison being rated as not sufficiently good in all four of our healthy prison tests. Any optimism we had in 2016 was not borne out at this inspection, where some outcomes had deteriorated markedly.

We had significant concerns about the safety of the establishment. Levels of violence were far too high and not enough had been done to ensure the underlying causes were understood or addressed. Until recently the prison’s strategy relied almost exclusively on punishing poor behaviour when it occurred. There were early signs that a more proactive approach was being adopted, and some enthusiastic safer custody staff wanted to make a difference. This new focus needed to be maintained and developed.

Much of the violence was related to the supply and use of illicit drugs, and the positive drug testing rate was among the highest we have seen at over 40%. There was a focus on reducing the supply of illicit drugs and providing drug users with support, but these challenges remained significant. The level of finds was consistently high: in a single month, the prison had seized 28 drug packages, 44 mobile phones and 18 parcels that had been thrown over the perimeter wall. The estimated value in the prison of the items seized during that month alone was in excess of £15,000.

Perhaps the most worrying issue was how men who were at risk of suicide and self-harm were managed. There had been 16 self-inflicted deaths over the previous eight years, and four since the last inspection. However, too many recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) had not been implemented. Levels of self-harm and the use of constant watch were very high, and the care provided was often not good enough. Many staff had become very risk adverse, which meant these procedures were often overused, which in turn risked masking the needs of particularly vulnerable men. The almost complete lack of a broad strategic response to these issues was a concern. Sadly, we were notified of yet another self-inflicted death at the prison a few weeks after our inspection.

The accommodation was very mixed. The older wings were in a poor state, cleanliness was ot good enough and there was too much graffiti. Problems with the failed Carillion contract and subsequentfacilities management arrangements had not helped, and we were told over 3,000 maintenance jobs were still outstanding. There were shortages of many items, and prisoners were frustrated because they could not obtain timely answers to legitimate questions or complaints. In contrast, relationships were decent, and the atmosphere on wings was generally calm and respectful. Most prisoners said they had a member of staff they could turn to if they had a problem.

Many staff were new and it was positive that the prison had plans to provide them with greater levels of mentoring and training. Some important aspects of health care provision needed attention; while we felt this area had improved since the previous inspection, leadership needed to be stronger, permanent staffing levels required improvement and complaints management was poor. Waiting times for some aspects of primary care were too long and mental health services were stretched. However, inpatient care had improved considerably, the needs of those with acute problems were well met and substance misuse support was generally good.

The prison did not have sufficient staff to deliver the advertised regime, and nearly all of the prisoners were negatively affected by restrictions to prisoners’ time out of cell. Over 40% of those who did not attend activities were usually locked up every day for 21 to 22 hours. Ofsted noted a more strategic approach was developing to improve the education, skills and work provision, but there remained a significant shortfall in the amount of purposeful activity on offer. Attendance and punctuality were poor, too much teaching and learning was not good enough and opportunities to  accredit and recognise skills development were being missed. Mentors, however, were used well, and the results of those who completed activities were generally good.

Outcomes in rehabilitation and release planning were by far the strongest at this inspection. Work to promote contact with children and families was sound. Nearly all men had an up-to-date offender assessment system (OASys) assessment and offender management for higher-risk men was good. Public protection work was generally appropriate and most men progressed to other prisons promptly and efficiently. There were some weaknesses in work with low- to medium-risk men and release planning processes but, overall, we considered outcomes reasonably good.

The findings of this inspection, particularly the in crease in the level of violence, the number of self-inflicted deaths, the ready availability of drugs and the unacceptably poor living conditions endured by many prisoners, were such that I seriously considered invoking the Urgent Notification protocol for HMP Chelmsford. I had significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of those detained in the prison. However, there were also a number of other relevant factors to take into account when considering whether to invoke the protocol, one of which was the Inspectorate’s confidence in the prison’s capacity for change and improvement.

The previous governor had left and an acting governor was in post. She enjoyed the confidence and support of her staff and was receiving invaluable support from the recently appointed prison group director, which was reassuring. The support included removing 50 prisoners from the prison, which was an important first step. The senior management team had also been strengthened, and the supervision of officers on the wings was being improved. Mentoring and support for the large number of new staff was being introduced. Plans were in place to improve the prison, and their implementation was being addressed sensibly, pragmatically and realistically.

As long as the leadership of the prison remains consistent, and vital regional-level HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) support continues, there is no reason why the very serious problems afflicting the prison cannot be addressed. Leadership at both local and regional level readily acknowledged the gravity of the issues facing the jail, and HMPPS had already placed the prison in ‘special measures’. I therefore concluded that on this occasion I had sufficient confidence in the ability of the prison to improve that I would not invoke the Urgent Notification protocol. To help prison managers to address the key issues that caused us most concern, I have decided on this occasion to make only a small number of relatively high level main recommendations and am hopeful that, if progress can be made in these areas, we will find the prison much improved on our next visit.

Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM
July 2018
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons


Return to Chelmsford 

The full reports can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below: