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12 Nov 2014

Brixton, Bristol and Elmley: Three prisons that reveal depth of the crisis behind bars

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to reports on Brixton and Bristol prisons released by their Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) and to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ report on Elmley prison, published today (Wednesday 12 November).

Elmley prison was found to be grossly overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in a “very restricted and unpredictable” regime. There was one major disturbance a month at the Isle of Sheppey prison. Over the previous 11 months, there had been 11 acts of concerted indiscipline when prisoners had refused to return to their cells. There had been none in the 12 months before that.

The overall number of fights and assaults in Emley had increased by 60 per cent over the past year and the number of serious assaults had also increased sharply. Inspectors witnessed vulnerable prisoners being abused without staff intervention. There had been five self-inflicted deaths in two years.

Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day, with prisoners being turned away from education and work because of staff shortages. About 15 per cent of the population, or almost 200 men, were unemployed and routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells. Forty percent of prisoners reported it was easy to obtain drugs in Elmley.

Despite being designated as a ‘resettlement prison’, the offender management unit at Elmley was “overwhelmed”, with half the posts remaining vacant and staff frequently deployed to other duties. Supervisors received no training or support and inspectors found that none of the cases they reviewed showed any meaningful work had been done to address the offending behaviour of the prisoner concerned.

The Brixton IMB has criticised government policies, describing staffing levels at the London prison as such that they “wholly ignore the requirements of running a prison effectively, safely and humanely”. As with Elmley, inadequate staffing in offender management meant that the prison’s resettlement role was compromised and many prisoners had not been risk assessed in a timely or effective manner.

The IMB has also criticised the Ministry of Justice changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme. In particular the ban on parcels, central to the Howard League’s Books For Prisoners campaign, has been described as adversely affecting rehabilitation and inhibiting education.

These reports follow a third IMB report on Bristol prison, which found that staffing levels were at times “insufficient” to ensure a safe environment for prisoners and staff, with the prison being described as at “bursting point”.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “These reports are the latest in a long line of horror stories to hit ministers’ desks and yet there is no evidence that their findings will be taken any more seriously than its predecessors. It is the policies of a madhouse to cram more and more people behind bars while starving the prisons of the staff and resources required to manage them safely. How can we expect people to turn their lives around in an environment where violence and drug abuse is rife, while staff charged with assessing risk and addressing offending behaviour do not have the training or support to do their job. Sadly we have witnessed a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude within the Ministry of Justice. It remains to be seen whether ministers will accept the gravity of the crisis assailing prisons in England and Wales, or indeed whether they will accept there is a crisis at all.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Elmley inspection report can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website
  3. The Brixton and Bristol reports are published by the Ministry of Justice
  4. The scale of prison staffing cuts across England and Wales is shown in the Howard League’s research briefing paper, Breaking point: Understaffing and overcrowding in prisons and an update on even further cuts to staff.


Andrew Neilson
Director of Campaigns
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7868
Mobile: +44 (0)7918 681 094

ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system

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