Inspectorate finds HMP Exeter to be 'very violent'

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HMP Exeter, holding more than 400 men from across the south west of England, was found by inspectors to be “very violent”, with widespread illicit drug use and poor living conditions apparently regarded by staff as normal.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the deterioration in conditions in Exeter, particularly in safety, was so severe that he invoked the Urgent Notification protocol for only the second time since it was ratified in November 2017. The protocol – invoked in Exeter in May 2018 – requires the Secretary of State for Justice to respond publicly with plans to improve the jail.

In the previous inspection, in August 2016, inspectors had found a serious decline in a number of areas. Mr Clarke warned in 2016: “Unless the regime at the establishment could be improved, violence reduced and the prevalence of drugs and other contraband addressed, further declines would be almost inevitable.” In 2018, Mr Clarke said: “Unfortunately, despite a significant increase in staffing levels, my fears have proved founded…This unannounced inspection, carried out a mere 21 months after the last, found that not only did many prisoners feel unsafe but that the prison was in fact significantly less safe than at the last inspection, was less safe than similar prisons, and had reached a position where it now inevitably attracted our lowest possible assessment of ‘poor’.”

The rate of assaults between prisoners was the highest inspectors had then seen in a local prison in recent years, and had more than doubled since the 2016 inspection. The number of incidents involving the use of force by staff had risen and was also very high. Many violent incidents were serious and involved weapons. There was a concerning trend of prisoners throwing boiling water mixed with sugar at staff and other prisoners, which had occurred at least 25 times in the previous six months. Illicit drugs were prevalent, with 60 per cent of prisoners saying it was easy to obtain drugs and around a quarter testing positive for drugs. Living conditions for many in the prison were very poor. Mr Clarke commented: “My sense was that the situation had come to be regarded by many staff as normal.”

There had also been six self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection, and apparently another within weeks of the 2018 inspection. Self-harm had risen by 40 per cent. Mr Clarke added: “In light of the very high levels of vulnerability, self-harm and suicide among prisoners at Exeter, it was shocking to see that cell call bells were routinely ignored by staff.” Inspectors were particularly appalled by the segregation unit, finding a young man with mental health issues being held in the only cell in use during a period of refurbishment. The report noted the prisoner “was effectively living in the middle of a building site, which was noisy and dirty due to the refurbishment work taking place.” Staff had not even made the effort to find out his first name.

On a more positive note, inspectors found that the prison was now much better staffed, the day-to-day regime was generally more predictable, and there had been improvements in health care and resettlement activity.

Overall, though, Mr Clarke said: “My judgement was that without significant intervention and support from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), the urgently needed improvements to safety in HMP Exeter were unlikely to materialise. This was directly relevant to my decision to use the Urgent Notification protocol.”

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