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Howard League blog · 23 May 2024

Rats, flies and crumbling walls: The physical state of prisons is getting worse

The Independent Monitoring Boards’ (IMBs) annual report, published yesterday, provides yet more evidence that the physical state of our prisons is getting worse.

Despite spending a “record” amount on the recent maintenance of prisons, the Ministry of Justice still has some £900 million worth of maintenance jobs on its ‘to do’ list. Even if such a vast sum were available, all “non-essential maintenance work” has stopped because prisons are simply too crowded to allow for the closure of cells that such work would entail.

The inadequacy of investment, and the desperate impact of overcrowding, loom large in almost every inspection report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and in updates from IMBs. In the last few weeks alone, we have heard about:

  • “crumbling infrastructure” at Lewes prison, with HMIP reporting that “many cells remained in unsatisfactory condition and a small number were poor, with heavily stained toilets, faulty electric fixtures and dilapidated furniture”;
  • men in Winchester prison being able to damage and attempt to dig through cell walls, on one occasion even through the wall to the landing, using simple implements such as plastic cutlery;
  • a “dirty” prison “in a poor state of repair” at Brinsford, where HMIP found most showers in “extremely poor” condition and some with “insufficient” ventilation, leading to “exposed wooden areas rotting away, mildew on the ceiling and, in some, an infestation of small flies”;
  • cells on B wing at Whatton prison that are so small that “the toilet [is] situated next to the bed without any partition” and where “black mould grew on poorly ventilated cell walls and prisoners had been forced to line walls with cardboard to keep warm”;
  • problems at Pentonville prison, where a window-replacement scheme, deemed extremely important for preventing escapes, had to be cancelled because the jail was too crowded and a rat infestation got so bad that Islington Council’s environmental health team forced the closure of the kitchen;
  • issues in newer jails, such as “unacceptable” showers and concrete floors breaking up in Woodhill prison (built in 1992) and “significant design faults” in Five Wells prison (built in 2022); and
  • conditions at Wandsworth prison being so terrible that the Chief Inspector has issued his sixth ‘urgent notification’ in 18 months, noting – among many other concerns about safety and security – that there are ongoing problems with vermin and that the “fabric of the buildings and facilities including showers and heating still need… significant investment to bring them up to a decent standard”.

Of all the grim conditions we have seen first-hand recently, or read about in independent reports, perhaps none was so alarming as conditions in the segregation unit at Bedford prison, however.

Last month we published a blogpost about a letter that we had sent threatening to judicially review the Secretary of State if he continued to place people there. The unit is underground and was described by prison inspectors earlier this year as ‘a disgrace’, with men, who were often very mentally unwell, being held in ‘damp, dark and dilapidated cells’ on a unit that ‘was unfit for purpose’.

We took this action because it appeared that the Secretary of State for Justice had gone back on a commitment, made in December 2023, that the segregation unit at Bedford would be closed and a new unit opened by the end of April 2024.

We explained in the blogpost that the government’s lawyers had responded to our letter, confirming that the completion and opening of the new segregation unit was ‘on track for Spring 2024’.  We continued to press the government’s lawyers to tell us exactly when the new unit would open and the current unit would be closed, and we had, until recently, received assurances that everything was on track as promised.

However, at the start of May, the government’s lawyers told us that ‘issues’ had been identified with the construction of the new unit which would result in a delay to its opening. Last week we were told that these issues are significant.

We have been assured that potential solutions are being urgently explored, and that improvements have been made to the current segregation unit in the meantime. However, as the prison inspectors said in 2022, the environment in the segregation unit at Bedford renders it unfit for purpose, regardless of efforts made to improve it.

We have been invited to meet the governor of Bedford to discuss the matter – which we will do – but in the meantime men continue to live, and staff to work, in conditions which are wholly inappropriate.

The Howard League will continue to do what it can, both on specific issues and larger, systemic challenges, to see meaningful prison reform take hold. But it is only with your support that we can do so. If you can, please help us to continue this important work, either by joining as a member or making a donation. Thank you.

Gemma Abbott, Legal Director





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