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Howard League blog · 25 Feb 2020

Aylesbury prison, one of the worst in the country

Aylesbury prison holds young adults, mainly teenagers, and it has been one of the worst prisons in the country for years. It was so awful that it was put into emergency special measures and half the young men were shipped out to other jails – many of which are only marginally better. Despite the extra help, a new inspection shows it is still desperately awful.

There are now only a couple of hundred lads in the prison and the number of staff has increased. Yet, violence has gone up and, in the words of HM chief inspector: “.. for much of the week, there was no evening association, time out of cell was poor and often unpredictable and there was no opportunity at all for prisoners to eat together.”

This report confirms our own experience. Our legal team received 123 calls on behalf of young men in Aylesbury prison in the last year. Many callers had multiple complaints and the fact that they have to resort to legal advice and intervention indicates a failure of the prison to respond to the needs of the young men and to manage the institution safely.

Some of the young people our legal team helped include:

  • A 20-year-old young person who was restrained by staff when some other young people attempted to assault him. He was put in a hold and struggled to breathe. The Howard League submitted complaints on his behalf. In the context of this incident, he was also charged with assault. Despite multiple requests, the prison failed to disclose the use-of-force paperwork and eventually the independent adjudicator dismissed the charge.
  • A 20 year old contacted us after he had been in the segregation unit for three months, receiving less than an hour out each day. The Howard League complained on his behalf.
  • A young adult aged 21 with serious mental health problems was isolated on the wing for several months before being transferred to another prison after the Howard League submitted numerous complaints. During that time he was effectively in solitary confinement but did not have the benefit of the procedural safeguards that are required when people in prison are formally removed from association.
  • An autistic young adult contacted the Howard League repeatedly after being disciplined in respect of incidents where he was the victim of assaults.
  • A young adult spent over five months in segregation and had accrued over 200 additional days for breaking prison rules.
  • A young adult contacted the Howard League after he was assaulted by officers during a restraint.  Despite body warn camera footage being available, it was not turned on or preserved, impeding an effective investigation.

Segregation and isolation

Our legal team raised concerns with the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman about Aylesbury and, in particular the extensive use of solitary confinement there back in 2018.

In 2019, the prison was put into special measures.

The team told me today that while the reduction in the number of young adults by half has no doubt enabled some improvements, it is deeply troubling that this report fails the prison on all four of the Inspectorate’s tests and reports young men stuck in the segregation unit with nothing to do for months on end. The PPO recommended a review of the segregation unit to enable a sufficient regime. Our experience from our legal work and this report shows this has not happened.


In recent years, a huge number of additional days have been imposed on young adults at Aylesbury, often among the highest in the country.

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
9428 8413 12100 11676 8625

This is even though Aylesbury holds a large number of lifers who cannot get additional days. This means that this particular punishment is meted out to a minority of young people, creating a two-tier punishment system that is basically punishment out of control.

The Howard League legal team has often come across the use of low-level charges that could have been better dealt with through better management and conflict resolution. We found that adjudication tariffs were disproportionately severe for some more minor incidents. For example, we were told about one young person with severe mental health problems who was sent to the independent adjudicator for vaping on the landing instead of in his cell.


Many young people who contact the Howard League raised concerns about the use of force. It is therefore troubling, but unsurprising that the inspectorate reports nearly half the prisoners said they had been physically restrained at Aylesbury. Young adults need to be shown alternatives to resolving conflict if they are to turn away from violence. Officers should be appropriately supported to lead by example.

This is a troubled prison that is blighting the life chances of young men who have already committed serious offences. They need to be shown a better path, helped with education and an environment that is positive and caring, given support and a vision of life that does not include violence. Instead, the prison is compounding violence with violence. The prison is letting down victims and society.

Anyone who saw the Gareth Malone television programme about his patient efforts to get a choir inside Aylesbury will have been disturbed by what they saw. The film was bad enough, reality is even worse.


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