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Frances Crook's blog · 9 Apr 2018

Brinsford – the story of just one prison

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

“Emergency intervention to sort out failing prison!” The headline I have seen, or a version of it, year after year. I will tell the story of just one prison.

Brinsford is a medium sized prison near Wolverhampton and holds around 500 young men, mostly between the ages of 18 to 21. It is not famous, nor is it particularly infamous.

In 2013 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons published an excoriating report. He said: “These are the worst overall findings my inspectorate has identified in a single prison during my tenure as Chief Inspector. Across all of our four tests of a healthy prison, we found outcomes to be poor.”

The inspection team was so horrified at what they found that the report contained photographs for the first time. The pictures showed broken windows with shards of glass, filthy toilets and showers and graffiti strewn cells.

The report described a prison in chaos that was unsafe for young men and for staff. The prison was violent and the inspectors found evidence of staff failing to report the true extent of violence. Bullying was rife and had led to young men self-injuring.

Security was failing and drugs were easy to get. There was nothing much for the young men to do all day and almost half were simply locked up all the time.

This was clearly a prison in a shambles and the report generated considerable media and political concern. Action was taken. A new super-governor was parachuted in. I visited the prison when he had been there a few months and was impressed with the changes. He had busted the budget (which had been significantly increased anyway) and refurbished the windows, had taken out some of the gates that impeded vision and movement, cleaned the place up, sacked ten per cent of the staff, recruited lots of new staff with a different vision.

Most importantly he reduced the number of prisoners by over 100. Indeed when I was in the prison, the governor refused to take an bus load of prisoners shipped up from an overcrowded prison in the West Country. He simply refused to let them in.

The obvious outcome was a prison that was safe and decent. When the inspectors returned in 2015 they praised the prison for implementing its recommendations.

The governor was moved on. The number of prisoners was increased. The place has fallen apart.

Last month the inspectorate published another report on its visit in late 2017, saying it was back to the old ways. The number of prisoners had been increased. The prison was unsafe, the built environment was deteriorating, self-harm had increased dramatically.

The prison had had an eighteen month breathing space but it had not lasted.

This happens again and again. A shocking report leads to an action plan and short term improvement. As soon as the overcrowding is resumed, the prison deteriorates.

I welcome the recent reduction in the prison population, but it came about due to more prisoners being released early on a curfew and a tag, which is not a systemic solution.

Ministers have to get to grips with the fundamental problems or they will be responding to more reports like Brinsford, and, they will be leaving a legacy for ministers to do more of the same for generations to come.

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