‘Serious decline in performance’ at Lewes Prison despite special measures

Criticised: HMP Lewes
Criticised: HMP Lewes

Treatment and conditions for men in Lewes Prison declined over two years while the jail was subject to HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) ‘special measures’, says a report.

The failure of special measures suggested a systemic failure within the prison service, according to Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The prison was last inspected in January 2016, when inspectors found it to be reasonably good in respect and resettlement, and not sufficiently good in safety and purposeful activity.

Unfortunately, Mr Clarke said, “the findings of this inspection [in January 2019] were deeply troubling and indicative of systemic failure within the prison service.

“We found that in three areas – respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning – there had been a decline in performance.

“In the fourth area, the key one of safety, although performance was not so poor as to drag the assessment to the lowest possible level, it was undoubtedly heading in that direction.

“What makes the decline at Lewes even more difficult to understand is the fact that two years ago HMPPS put the prison into what it described as ‘special measures’.

“I have examined the ‘Improving Lewes (Special Measures) Action Plan’ agreed with senior HMPPS management in August 2018. However, of the 45 action points in the plan, 39 had not been completed and the majority were described as requiring ‘major development’.”

There were, Mr Clarke added, more than 50 references to reviewing activity in the plan, “but a noticeable dearth of hard targets”.

He continued: “The results of this inspection clearly showed that, far from delivering better outcomes, two years of ‘special measures’ had coincided with a serious decline in performance.”

Mr Clarke warned that unless HMP Lewes had strong leadership and a realistic action plan focused on delivering clear, measurable outcomes, it was highly likely that the use of the HMI Prisons Urgent Notification procedure would have to be considered at some point.

Inspectors at Lewes found:

Safety – Since the last inspection there had been five self-inflicted deaths, and incidents of self-harm had tripled but there had been an inadequate response to recommendations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO). While levels of violence were broadly similar to 2016, assaults against staff had risen and a quarter of prisoners felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. One fifth of assaults were serious. Illicit drugs undoubtedly sat behind much of the violence. Despite this, devices to detect contraband and drugs had not been working since April 2018. Mr Clarke said: “I was told this was because of ‘procurement’ difficulties. If ‘special measures’ was intended to help the prison overcome this type of bureaucratic obstacle, it had failed.”

Respect – Seventy-eight per cent of prisoners said staff treated them with respect and the atmosphere was reasonably calm. “This was an unusually high figure for this type of prison, and added weight to the notion that the problems at Lewes were not insoluble, but did require significant management intervention.” There were “very real weaknesses” in health care in the prison.

Purposeful activity – Ofsted inspectors found “no clear strategy” for the delivery of learning and skills, and allocation to activities appeared to be a matter of luck. While time out of cell was good for those attending activities, it was not so good for those not attending, and inspectors found 40 per cent of prisoners locked in their cells during the working day.

Rehabilitation and release planning – A lack of leadership meant that there was weak strategic management, and the reducing reoffending strategy was out of date.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “This was a very disappointing inspection … The detail contained in this report brings into question the utility of ‘special measures’, if a prison can decline so badly when supposedly benefitting from them for a full two years.

“It also validates the Inspectorate’s new Independent Reviews of Progress, which are specifically designed to give ministers a report of progress against previous inspection reports at struggling prisons such as Lewes.

“A new governor had taken up post shortly before this inspection, and she will need support from her own management team and from more senior levels in HMPPS if the decline at HMP Lewes is to be arrested and reversed.”

Phil Copple, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) Director General of Prisons, said: “After the previous inspection in January 2016, the staffing position at Lewes deteriorated and there were a number of disturbances.

“The prison clearly needed central support to tackle the challenges they faced. In January 2017, it was placed into special measures – a process that has successfully supported improvement at other prisons. Staff from other establishments supported the prison, and although there has been progress in some areas, it has not been as swift or as comprehensive as we would have hoped.

“Better recruitment meant we were fully staffed in 2018 which has helped to halt the decline. As noted by the inspectorate, assaults have fallen and self-harm has started to reduce too.

“Safety is the Governor’s clear priority. We are providing extra support from our central safety team to drive further improvements, and the prison has introduced X-ray scanners and netting to combat drugs. The establishment is well-placed to make further progress and will focus on the Inspectorate’s recommendations to do so.”