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26 Sep 2014

Swaleside prison: Stretched beyond limit

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ reports on Swaleside prison, published today (Friday 26 September).

Inspectors found that staffing shortages rendered Swaleside unsafe and completely undermined its purpose as a training prison.

The shortages affected every area of the prison and were creating resentment. A new incentives and earned privileges scheme – introduced by the government to make prisons more “spartan” and including the ban on books and other essentials being sent to prisoners – was being phased in gently so as not to create tensions because the governor did not have enough staff to manage this safely.

Although Swaleside is a training prison, inspectors found about one-third of prisoners were locked in their cells during the working day. One in five prisoners was unemployed and spent only two hours a day out of his cell. Staff had no accurate idea about the availability of drugs because no random mandatory testing had been carried out.

In the six months prior to the inspection, the prison recorded 30 assaults on prisoners and 11 on staff. Prisoners had been stabbed or slashed, and some told inspectors they were worried about the availability of weapons. Some prisoners were too frightened to come out of their cells, and 30 had to be held on the induction wing because they were too worried to go elsewhere.

There had been two suicides in Swaleside since the last inspection in 2011. Measures to prevent suicide and self-harm were inadequate.

‘Special accommodation’ – small bare cells without furniture – was used six times as much as at comparable prisons, and prisoners were held in these cells for much longer than inspectors see elsewhere.

Research by the Howard League has found that the number of prison officers in Swaleside was cut by 25 per cent in almost four years – from 265 in August 2010 to 200 in June 2014.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is the latest in a long line of damning inspection reports showing prisons stretched beyond their limits. Ministers deny there is a crisis, but the evidence is plain to see. Staff cuts have made Swaleside a dangerous prison. It is dangerous for prisoners and for staff, and that means it is dangerous for the public too, as men spill out back into communities more likely to cause mayhem and harm. Some prisoners are too frightened to leave their cells. Others have nothing to do but lie on their bunks. And tensions are so high that the prison has been forced to delay the introduction of harsh new prison rules because there are not enough staff to quell the trouble it will cause. Trying to fix these problems by bringing in officers from elsewhere is like rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship. Budget cuts are being felt in every prison in the land, and the solution is to send fewer people to prison in the first place.”

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 inspection report can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website.
  3. The Howard League is available for comment on an inspection report on Springhill prison, which is also being published on Friday 26 September 2014.
  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.


Rob Preece
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