09:58, May 31 258 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-31 09:58:34
Prisons inspector takes emergency action over HMP Exeter

The chief inspector of prisons has taken emergency action to improve conditions at an “unequivocally poor” jail with soaring levels of violence and self-harm.

Peter Clarke has put the justice secretary, David Gauke, on notice that he must explain how conditions at HMP Exeter will be improved using an “urgent notification” protocol for only the second time since the power became available.

An unannounced inspection discovered high rates of self-harm and suicide, including six self-inflicted deaths, increasing numbers of assaults against prisoners and staff, and drugs were rife.

In his letter to the justice secretary, Clarke said: “During the inspection we saw many examples of a lack of care for vulnerable prisoners which, given the recent tragic events in the prison, were symptomatic of a lack of empathy and understanding of the factors that contribute to suicide and self-harm.”

Clarke told Gauke the principal reasons for invoking the urgent notification mechanism were that safety in the prison had “significantly worsened in many respects” since the previous inspection in August 2016.

The urgent notification power came into force in November and has been used once previously for HMP Nottingham.

Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in Exeter had gone up by 107% since the last assessment, while attacks on staff rose by 60%.

Clarke reported that there was a “strong smell” of drugs on some of the wings and he saw inmates who were “clearly under the influence” during the inspection visit.

Many cells were in a very poor state of repair, with broken windows, leaking lavatories and sinks, and poorly screened toilets.

In one case a vulnerable prisoner assessed as being at a heightened risk of suicide was seen in a “squalid” cell without bedding or glass in his window.

Clarke said: “The senior management team that is currently in place at HMP Exeter is largely the same as at the last inspection in 2016.

“The failure to address the actual and perceived lack of safety, and the issues that contribute to both, is so serious that it has led me to have significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of prisoners at HMP Exeter and to the inevitable conclusion to invoke the UN (urgent notification) protocol.”

Under the urgent notification process, the chief inspector can inform the government of any urgent and severe prison problems found during an inspection.

The justice secretary then has 28 days to publicly report on improvement measures adopted at the jail in question.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Exeter prison is a grossly overcrowded prison where most prisoners are either not convicted at all or are serving short sentences.”

The prisons minister, Rory Stewart, said: “I am grateful to the chief inspector for identifying the urgent attention required at HMP Exeter – and I am determined that we act immediately. Staffing has increased at Exeter and we expect to see improvements as a result.

“We will provide all the additional support needed to improve safety and reduce self-harm and we are already conducting a rapid review of conditions to improve the standard of cells.”

Built in 1853, HMP Exeter is a category B facility for male inmates and has an operational capacity of 544. The unannounced inspection was undertaken between 14 May and 24 May.