Inspectors raise fears over level of violence at ‘dangerous’ prison

A prison has been described as “dangerous” by watchdogs in the latest of a string of warnings about safety in jails in England and Wales.

Levels of violence at HMP Swaleside were “far too high”, with many of the incidents serious, inspectors found.

A survey found 69% of inmates at the category B training prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent had felt unsafe at some point – a result which was significantly higher than at similar facilities.

More than half (52%) of prisoners polled said it was easy or very easy to get drugs at the prison, while 45% said the same about alcohol.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons also said the use of force was high, while the segregation unit was described as “filthy”.

At the last inspection in 2014, the watchdog reported that “significant staffing shortages were having a negative impact on outcomes for prisoners”, while safety, purposeful activity and resettlement were “not sufficiently good”.

Following the latest visits, chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke said: “In many respects, outcomes at this inspection have further deteriorated in all four of our healthy prison tests, with safety in particular being of concern.

“To put it bluntly, the only sensible conclusion we could reach, on the basis of the very clear evidence before us, was that at the time of the inspection Swaleside was not a safe prison.”

It comes days after Mr Clarke warned in his annual report that too many prisons had become “unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.

Figures show an upsurge in violence behind bars. During 2015 there were more than 20,000 assaults in prisons, a 27% rise on the previous year.

At the time of inspection, Swaleside held just over 1,100 adult men.

The HMIP report said it had been a “struggling” prison for some time, adding that the population had “become more challenging”.

Mr Clarke added: “Despite the fact that by any standards this is a poor report about a dangerous prison, we left Swaleside with some optimism that the prison had started to stabilise.

“The new governor appeared to have a very clear understanding of the challenges he and his team faced.

“He had re-energised his senior management team and his approach was one of visible and energetic leadership.

“The very early signs, at the time of the inspection, were that his determination to grip difficult issues had been welcomed by many prisoners and staff alike, who told us they wanted to see the prison improve.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is yet another dreadful report into a failing prison and one which reiterates the systemic problems faced in prisons across the country.

“When we send people to dangerous prisons with such high levels of violence and nothing productive to do, it should be no surprise that they are swept into ever deeper currents of crime.

“The urgent need for change has not gone away. We are writing to the new Justice Secretary to request a meeting so that we can discuss how she will meet the challenges to be met behind bars.”

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said: “More staff have been recruited at Swaleside since this inspection took place.

“This will help enable the new governor and his team to run a safe and purposeful regime.

“Improving safety is the number one priority. As the inspectorate has recognised, progress has already been made in addressing some of the challenges at Swaleside, including the relaunch of the violence reduction strategy and improvements to the care of those at risk of self-harm.

“I am confident that the governor and his staff will continue to build on this work and address the recommendations made in this report.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2016, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Gareth Fuller / PA Wire.