Howard League blog · 3 Jul 2023
What do IMBs tell us about prison today?
Recently I had the privilege of attending and addressing the annual Study Day for the northern Independent Monitoring Boards in Sheffield. As part of the Howard League’s work to lift the lid on prisons, we look at Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) reports to identify recurring themes or emerging trends across the estate. Recent reports offer evidence of shortcomings around personal property, regimes, and healthcare.
IMBs comprise of volunteers assigned to each prison and sites of immigration detention in England and Wales. All year round, they scrutinise the quality of support and treatment in prisons, producing an annual report to the Secretary of State. As independent eyes and ears inside prisons, IMBs are invaluable in shedding light on what life is like inside.
The 15 most recent IMB publications cover the period spanning December 2021 to December 2022. It should come as no surprise that the underlying problem emerging from them all is staffing and population pressures. The prison system is currently in crisis, with a population projected to rise by a fifth in the next few years and recruitment of officers failing to keep up with staff losses. The IMB reports are quick to identify staffing as a key driver of difficulties within prisons today. The board at Highpoint, for instance, reports 74 staff resignations, with just 56 new officers starting, while the Isis report notes that 68 per cent of staff have less than two years’ experience.
Problems with property consistently form a high proportion of the complaints to IMBs. At Guys Marsh and Aylesbury, property-related applications doubled in a year – to 80 and 350, respectively. They formed a third of all complaints received at Grendon. Belongings often go missing or arrive late during transfer between prisons – largely because of differences in property allowances. As people in prison have no right to arrange for excess property to be sent to family, items are frequently misplaced or lost in storage. One of our members from a Category B prison told us delays were common, and that “some inmates have waited over three months for items to be processed and issued.”
Personal belongings are crucial in maintaining morale for people in prison. For many, sentimental items like letters from loved ones serve as a tangible reminder of home, providing comfort in a challenging environment. Another member wrote to us to say that the prison had lost his family photos and religious music, despite “years of complaints” in an attempt to retrieve his property. Many also experience the loss of important documents or legal papers.
Staff appear to be too overstretched to adequately manage property on top of their other duties. Many IMBs found property issues caused frustration among prisoners. With fewer officers on the wings, and with those who remain often lacking appropriate experience to de-escalate tense situations, such frustration can lead to violence.
The second theme of the reports is restricted regimes, initially imposed during the pandemic. Many are still spending most of the day ‘banged up’, with boards reporting people being held in their cells for 23-and-a-half hours a day in Brixton and 23 in Aylesbury.
With the pandemic no longer a viable justification for such restrictions, the IMB reports attribute their continuation to staffing pressures. There are not enough officers to unlock cells more frequently, especially on the weekends. IMBs found staffing restraints at Isis meant a premature ending to the regime at 5.30pm and the Board at Lowdham Grange reported “some prisoners and staff have expressed the view that the continuation of pandemic restrictions, which resulted in prisoners being denied access to faith meetings, work, gym and library visits, and adjudications, is being used as an excuse to cover for staff shortages.”
Thirdly, the reports also highlight a troubling decline in healthcare and mental health support. As staff shortages worsen, prisons are increasingly using agency staff. In Guys Marsh, for example, the IMB found no in-house psychiatrist, with a locum filling the position later – an “unsatisfactory situation.”
Staffing chaperones to hospital or mental health units has become a challenge, and lengthy clinical caseloads have become the norm. Board members at High Down identified an average wait for transfer of 50 days, and the wait for a dental appointment at Frankland was found to be over a year, with only four mental health clinicians managing a caseload of around 75 to 100 cases. At Lindholme, the IMB’s prisoner survey found 69 per cent struggled to contact healthcare. Similarly, one of our members at a Category B prison reports a “non-supply of pharmacy items and lack of communication”.
Again, staff inexperience comes into play, with training in suicide and self-harm lagging in most prisons and a ‘patchy’ officer understanding of the Listeners scheme. Another member in a Category B prison tells us “the system needs to provide better training for understanding and supporting those with mental health.”
Any attempts to tackling the staffing crisis, and in turn the problems outlined above, must first seriously acknowledge the rising prison population. Sentence inflation, barriers to progression and failure to adequately resettle prison leavers – among many other factors – have provided a toxic cocktail resulting in acute overcrowding. There is a mountain of work to be done to address these issues across the estate and IMBs play a crucial role in helping to monitor any progress and hold decision-makers to account.
My thanks go to IMB members across the country who volunteer in support of a more accountable prison system, and whose insights strengthen our collective understanding of life behind bars. The Study Day saw considerable discussion of the need to recruit more members to IMBs – if you are interested in learning how you can get involved, please visit imb.org.uk/prison-volunteer.
Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)