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9 Mar 2016

Doncaster: A new but failing private prison

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ report on Doncaster prison, published today (Wednesday 9 March).

Inspectors visited the Serco-run men’s prison in October last year and found that safety was a major concern, with a lack of staff contributing to the problems.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is the second concerning inspection report in a row on Doncaster. The last one was awful, and this one is even worse. Today’s report emphasises how misleading it is to blame the prison system’s failings on Victorian jails. If old buildings were the problem, we would be tearing down Oxbridge. Doncaster is a big, new, private prison, opened in 1994, but it is already infested with vermin and has fallen into disrepair. Prisons with too many prisoners and too few staff will fail, no matter how old they are. The Prime Minister has recognised that prisons are failing and that wholesale reform is needed. Action cannot come too soon.”

In the six months before the inspection there had been 365 assaults – a rate of violence far higher than that seen at comparable prisons. Some of these incidents were very serious and involved a gang of men attacking a single victim. In February 2015 a man died as a result of an assault, prompting a murder inquiry.

There were too few staff on the wings and they did not receive enough support. Barricades and hostage incidents were among the concerning incidents recorded in the months leading to the inspectors’ visit. More than 1,600 adjudications were held between April and September 2015 – almost double the number seen in similar prisons.

Eleven men had died in the 18 months prior to the inspection, including three who had taken their own lives. But important recommendations made in response to these tragedies had not been implemented or followed up.

Some prisoners at risk of self-injury were isolated in poor conditions with little to do, and staff did not always have time to care for them. Inspectors found that the constant watch cells in the prison’s segregation unit were “wholly inappropriate for people in crisis”.

Prisoners were able to get drugs easily, but finding clean bedding was difficult. Inspectors saw vermin, and many cells were in a “terrible state”, with filth, graffiti and inadequate furniture. Many cell windows were missing. Dangerous exposed wiring had not been dealt with.

Eleven men had died in the 18 months prior to the inspection, including three who had taken their own lives.

Healthcare provision had deteriorated and, although there were sufficient activity places for prisoners to have at least part-time work, training or education, these were still underused because the regime was “erratic” and “poorly managed”.

Doncaster prison’s population had been reduced by 100 at the time of the inspection – a response to all the problems it found itself in.

Although the Howard League’s legal team helps children and young adults, it has also received requests for advice in relation to conditions in Doncaster, either from prisoners themselves or from people calling on their behalf.

One adult prisoner told the charity that he had not been provided with breakfast and for three days he had been in his cell with no water or electricity. He also said that there was glass in the cell. He said that he wanted to complain but had not been allowed out of his cell to even get a complaint form.

Another prisoner, whose wife contacted the Howard League, was being held in segregation and complained that he had not received his prescribed medication for three days. He said that he had no meal choices as necessary for his Islamic faith and that he was generally being intimidated by staff.

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. A copy of the Doncaster inspection report can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website from Wednesday 9 March.


Rob Preece
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