On a busy day, another scathing prison inspection report hardly counts as news. Serious assaults, frightened prisoners, restricted regimes, backlogs in assessments have become the norm. Nick Hardwick’s finding that HMP Swaleside is failing in its central task as a training prison comes as little surprise.
Even if the catalogue of shortcomings is a sadly familiar one, today’s report has some startling features. Staff seem to have given up on mandatory drug testing so they have no accurate idea about the availability of narcotics inside the prison. Alcohol seems to be more widely available than in other jails. The regime in the dirty and ill equipped segregation unit is punitive and records are not properly kept about the use of force. ‘Special accommodation’, (a small bare cell without furniture), is used much more often and for longer than at comparable prisons. Despite some good work opportunities, others are exceptionally mundane, and in the case of the rag-cutting workshop, stultifyingly boring.
What if any lessons can be learned from what’s happening on the Isle of Sheppey? First as with all inspection reports these days, it is not at all clear if the recommendations made by the inspectors are actually accepted and if so acted on. Years ago reports were published with a response from the prisons minister, head of the prison service and the governor. That should be reintroduced in recognition of the fact that , as Inspectors concluded at Swaleside , while prisons can themselves address some of their shortcomings, they need much more effective support from the centre.
The second lesson is that the centre – that is the prison service headquarters functions and the National Offender Management service (NOMS) needs much more in the way of external and expert oversight. The processes and initiatives by which NOMS has cut costs – “fair and sustainable”, “benchmarking”, “new ways of working” appear to have caused some serious unintended consequences. For example, the Swaleside Independent Monitoring Board reported this year that too many staff were allowed voluntary redundancy during the year due to lack of forward planning by NOMS and as a result, a vast amount of irreplaceable experience was lost.
With so much of what happens in prisons a direct result of decisions made in Whitehall, the balance of informed scrutiny needs to be shifted so that the administrators are inspected as well as the prison staff. It is true that the National Audit Office looked at the NOMS cost cutting plans last year but they reached an absurdly narrow conclusion that the strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past. The Prison Inspectorate, currently limited to looking at prisons, should work much more closely with the NAO in the future.
Finally, there is a strong case for exempting prison budgets from the next round of cost cutting which the outgoing head of the civil service warned today may last five years. Recent reports such as Swaleside show that establishments increasingly cannot do their job with resources available to them. The prison system is becoming an institutional failure.