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Howard League blog · 12 Jan 2024

What IMBs tell us about prisons today: New Year update

The new year is often seen as an opportunity for new beginnings. Many of us will have made resolutions, looking forward to positive change in 2024. And no public service is in more urgent need of positive change than the prison system; Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) reports from the last four months of 2023 show us how a rapid rise in the prison population has made life worse for tens of thousands of people inside.

IMBs are teams of volunteers assigned to each prison and sites of immigration detention in England and Wales. They monitor and report on them and offer an invaluable insight into standards and treatment. About 50 IMB reports were published between September and December last year. Together, they point to a system struggling to help people with mental health problems, while under pressure from a growing use of remand, chronic overcrowding and staff shortages across the estate.

The remand population – the number of people in prison awaiting trial or sentence – is at its highest level for at least 50 years. Reports on Altcourse and Nottingham prisons reveal that people on remand account for 60 per cent of their total populations. The board at Bedford prison reported a remand population of up to 85 per cent.

People are being held on remand for longer periods of time, often beyond the statutory six-month time limit. Official figures, published by the House of Commons Library in September, show that 770 prisoners had been held on custodial remand awaiting trial for over two years. Birmingham prison’s IMB reported that some men had been held there on remand for even longer, since 2019.

The IMB reports underline a lack of support for remanded people and an absence of funding to aid resettlement. The board at Bristol prison warns that “there are more remand prisoners in the prison and less support for their release.Another huge problem is a failure to find suitable accommodation for people leaving prison. Wandsworth prison’s board, for instance, was “…very concerned that remand prisoners still received no housing support.

The rise in the remand population, driven by a backlog of cases in the courts during the pandemic, has piled more pressure on a system already overcrowded after decades of ‘sentence inflation’ – people being jailed for longer and longer. Using the prison service’s own measure of safe and decent accommodation, there ought to have been no more than 79,122 people in prison at the end of December; in fact, there were 87,216. The government’s projections indicate that this figure could rise to more than 106,000 by March 2027.

Most IMB reports raise grave concerns about ‘doubling up’ – the practice of forcing people to share cells that were initially intended for one. The board at Wymott prison, where around 200 people are sharing cells, reports “it is inhumane that some prisoners must eat their meals sitting on their bed or their toilet because the cells are not big enough to accommodate two chairs.Board members at Pentonville prison, where men are “crammed…into cells measuring 12 by eight feet”, described the lack of privacy as inhumane.

One of our members in prison recently wrote to us about overcrowding: “it’s depressing. Two men living in the space the size of a skip. The lack of privacy and space only compounded by the squalor we are forced to live in.”

Brinsford prison’s IMB links the increase in its population – about 100 men over the year – to rising levels of violence. Board members at Coldingley warn that population pressures have made it harder for staff to monitor potentially dangerous gang connections of new arrivals.

It is troubling to see a growing use of segregation units to hold people with complex mental health needs while they wait for transfer to hospital.

But for those inside – both sentenced and remanded – what is prison actually like? In the first round-up of what IMB reports are telling us, I raised the chronic lack of support for those with poor mental health. The latest batch of reports show that this situation worsened, shamefully, during 2023.

The number of people in prison with mental health conditions is high. Referrals to the mental health unit at Oakwood prison frequently surpass 100 a month; 60 per cent of the population at Lancaster Farms prison have mental health problems; more than 100 prisoners of the 815 men at Liverpool prison have serious mental health needs; and the IMB at Isle of Wight prison report a doubling of referrals to mental health services compared with pre-pandemic levels. Self-harm incidents are also rising in some jails, at times with an increase as high as 150 per cent – as reported by the IMB at Styal, a prison holding women.

It is also troubling to see a growing use of segregation units to hold people with complex mental health needs while they wait for transfer to hospital. With dwindling numbers of staff trained in mental health care – Thameside prison’s mental health team, for instance, is solely staffed by agency workers, besides the manager, while Whitemoor and Stoke Heath prisons have limited access to therapists – officers feel they have no option but to hold people in isolation until a space crops up.

Incarceration to ensure protection and treatment for unwell people is wrong in principle, at best ineffective, and at worst deeply damaging. The Howard League has long campaigned for an end to outdated law that allows courts to remand people to prison for their ‘own protection’. Our research found that this power is often used to detain the most vulnerable of defendants, predominantly those who have been let down by failings of care and support in the community. The IMB at Peterborough prison reports “inhumane suffering,” as “…prisoners who show symptoms of psychosis who are in terror…often have a restricted regime or have to go to the segregation unit.

So, how might we seek better prison standards in 2024?

As a starting point, the government must acknowledge the scale of the problem. Prison conditions as poor as both the IMBs and the Chief Inspector of Prisons describe are not keeping the public safe. For example, the alarming increase in poor mental wellbeing shows that prisons are not healthy environments and do not provide the help those in a state of mental crisis require. In fact, they will likely compound problems even further. More generally, IMB reports are painting a picture of a system that is at the end of the road – one where further expansion is not only undesirable but increasing untenable.

Building more prisons is not the answer. An ever-larger prison system simply means ever larger problems. The IMB at one of the newest prisons in the country, HMP Five Wells, paints a grim picture of life inside, not dissimilar to what we are already seeing in older prisons. IMB members highlight staff recruitment challenges, limited access to resettlement opportunities, and design faults in the buildings.

Instead, the government must take bold action to manage down prison numbers and avoid the unacceptable scenario painted by the Ministry of Justice’s own population projections. That doesn’t mean renting foreign cells abroad, as is currently being legislated for, but owning the problem at home. It means building on the welcome commitment to reduce the use of short sentences of 12 months or less and looking to find further ways to reduce pressure on prisons. It’s crucial, for example, that ministers act now to shrink the remand population. Most pressingly of all, it is time for a serious attempt to reduce sentencing inflation and to move away from ever-increasing prison sentences. That may be a tough ask in the year of a likely general election, but as these IMB reports so grimly attest, the prison system simply can’t go on like this.

My huge thanks go to IMBs for their invaluable work as independent eyes and ears inside prisons, and I am grateful to them for hosting me in various prisons over the year. This work would not be possible without the hundreds of volunteers that give up their time to promote accountability and share insights that strengthen our collective understanding of life behind bars. IMBs are heavily reliant on these volunteers and are recruiting more board members. I urge anyone interested to consider applying to this rewarding and varied role. More information can be found on the IMB website.

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)



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