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Howard League blog · 12 Sep 2023

What IMBs tell us about prisons today: summer update

For most people, summer offers a chance to wind down. Many of us will have entered September refreshed after spending time on holiday and with family. This is not the case for those in prison.

Throughout the hot summer weeks, overstretched officers have had to work even harder as staff shortages continue, while trying to improve dire living standards for those inside. While the media’s attention may have swung towards prisons last week thanks to a rare (and brief) escape from Wandsworth, what are the everyday issues faced behind bars?

Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) reports provide an insight into what life is like inside. IMB volunteers are assigned to each prison and sites of immigration detention in England and Wales. They visit the prison frequently and produce an annual report to the Secretary of State.

When we last blogged about IMB reports, in July, we noted that staff shortages had been the most persistent problem raised by members. That trend has continued in subsequent reports; close reading of the 21 most recent publications, which cover the period spanning January 2022 to March 2023, reveals that, across the entire estate, increasing numbers of officers are leaving and recruitment is failing to keep up. The effects of this are felt across every aspect of prison life.

It is encouraging, however, to see recent IMB reports highlight an emerging trend of improving staff-prisoner relationships. Despite being forced to juggle limited resources, train new staff, and deal with prison overcrowding, officers who do remain in post appear to be making great strides with forming positive and productive relationships with people in prison.

At Rye Hill prison, the IMB reported “improved relationships between staff and prisoners”. Similarly, the board at Berwyn observed “positive relationships between staff and prisoners” and underlined officers’ particular strength at supporting prisoners involved with violence or self-harm.

This may explain why assaults on staff have started to reduce in some prisons – albeit at a glacial pace. At Humber prison, there were 38 incidents of prisoner-on-staff violence, compared with 46 in 2020. The numbers are similar at Leicester, where there were 38 incidents during the reporting period, compared to 54 in 2020.

In spite of the best efforts of frontline staff, the reports indicate that there are insufficient resources to run prisons adequately. Key work, in particular, has suffered. Through the key work scheme, each person in prison is assigned a member of staff to support them throughout their time in custody. IMBs tell us that staff shortages mean key worker targets are consistently not being met – and by a long way, too. The Mount, for instance, is delivering just 20 per cent of its scheduled key work, and only 44 per cent of men surveyed inside Norwich said that they knew who their key worker was.

Instead of benefiting from productive, rehabilitative relationships with dedicated key workers, people in prison are being left on the sidelines with hardly any bespoke support to help them return to their communities safely.

In spite of the best efforts of frontline staff, the reports indicate that there are insufficient resources to run prisons adequately.

Another worrying trend in the reports is growing concern about prison food. Complaints with the affordability and provision of food have risen as the cost of living crisis has deepened.

The kitchen management at Moorland told their IMB that the daily food allowance of £2.12 per person had not kept pace with inflation, and staff at Ranby said that their budget of £2.17 was not enough to provide a balanced meal. Thefts of food at Holme House have increased as small portion sizes force men either to go hungry or supplement their meals with their own money at the canteen – if they can afford it.

Other problems cited across the reports include poor quality of ingredients, unappetising food, broken kitchen equipment, limited menu options and last-minute substitutions. One man in Onley opened his pie and told the IMB Board that it contained more “fresh air” than filling.

Howard League members in prison are telling us the same in their letters. One member at a category C prison told us “prison food budgets [are] getting cut and [there are] smaller portions and meals for prisoners, and…not much healthy food on offer”. Another at a category B told us there is “poor food quality due to [the] catering company [being] unable to cope with [the] prison population”.

These latest IMB reports have shown how chronic staff shortages have contributed to dire conditions behind bars. Prison officers have been working as hard as they can in hugely difficult circumstances. I applaud them, but the falling standards in key work, food and many other areas of prison life, as evident in these publications, show that much more needs to be done.

The system as it stands is inadequate, and the government must come up with a long-term solution, rather than following through with their plans to build more prisons. Immediate investment in staff wages, officer training and food budgets would be welcome, but can only take us so far.

It is time to fix the problems facing prisons for good. Ministers must act to reduce the number of people in prison and pressures on staff through preventative measures and alternatives to custody. Only when they prepare for a sensible conversation about how long we incarcerate people for, and in what conditions, will we see pressures on the estate start to ease.

Andrea Coomber


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