14 April 2023

Squalid prisons should be a red light on Dominic Raab’s dashboard


What has cleanliness got to do with national security? More than meets the eye.

This week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons released two separate unannounced inspection reports on two of our highest security prisons – HMP Whitemoor and HMP Long Lartin. Both prisons hold well over 200 Category A prisoners – some of the most dangerous in the country including a substantial number of terrorists. Both prisons were heavily criticised for the physical environment these often very risky prisoners are held in.

At Whitemoor, Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor did not mince his words. The mince was rotting all over the floor, the prison wings were ‘the dirtiest I have seen since I became Chief Inspector’ Serveries and prison kitchens were ‘filthy.’  He made the cogent point that there is no better sign of decline in a prison than the state of its hygiene. Yet Whitemoor is no rat-infested Victorian dungeon where such dereliction is endemic. It’s one of our most modern establishments, built in 1991 on the site of an old railway yard in the Cambridgeshire fens. It has suffered numerous incidents since it opened its gates, including the escape of IRA prisoners, the mismanagement of the terrorist killer Usman Khan and, in 2020, the attempted murder of a prison officer by radicalised Jihadis wearing fake suicide belts.

No one is suggesting that managing extremely dangerous people is easy, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder about the fitness of an establishment to manage our national security risks if it can’t even manage to empty the bins. 

At HMP Long Lartin, an older high-security prison, things aren’t that much better. Inspectors slated dirty communal areas and kitchens and commented on how poorly maintained the physical fabric of the prison was. Half the prisoners still had a bucket instead of a toilet and the last meal of the day was cold, served at the cell door. While such conditions and the long periods of time banged up with nothing to do might excite the ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ brigade, these privations were fuelling frustration in prisoners, many of whom are serving extremely long sentences.

That frustration was, in turn, boiling over into violence against staff. Although well resourced on paper, safety at Long Lartin had declined to ‘not sufficiently good’ and reducing violence against staff was identified as a priority concern. This rating should be impossible in one of our maximum security prisons, where order and control is absolutely paramount. However Long Lartin, buried in the Vale of Evesham, is suffering from ‘severe’ staffing shortages. This means expected regimes are frequently terminated, education does not function and workshops remain empty.

In the (unscientific) staff surveys that accompany such inspection reports, 45% of respondents at Long Lartin said their morale was ‘low’ or ‘very low’. At Whitemoor the comparable figure was 43%. In both cases close to half of all respondents, the majority front line officers, said they either ‘never’ met their managers to discuss their work performance or it was an annual event. In both establishments managers were either too inexperienced, or too hard-pressed – or a combination of the two – to provide effective leadership to staff on residential units.

The ’broken window theory’ applies here. The theory, based on experience of police reform in New York City, suggests that a lack of care and attention to small quality of life issues in communities inevitably leads to a state of criminal impunity and a vacuum of authority that will be exploited by malign elements. A lack of visible or assertive authority accelerates the decline.

Prisons are communities too, with people living in them – albeit against their will – sometimes for decades. Whitemoor’s inspectors identified officers congregating in wing offices or standing together in pairs chatting, rather than interacting with prisoners. That’s a hard enough skill to master but impossible unless you get stuck in, and it delivers priceless rewards in terms of relationships, safety and intelligence.

At Long Lartin, exchanges between prisoners and staff were ‘cursory and transactional’ in part because acute staff shortages meant that staff on detached duty from elsewhere were drafted in as an emergency response to fill the cracks. These officers, while vital, provided little consistency and did not have the required ‘ownership’ of their work areas vital to maintaining high standards. The net effect of this churn and high rates of resignation of newly recruited staff produces prisoners with a sense of hopelessness and resentment that readily translates into violence. The target, inevitably is the man or woman with the epaulettes unlocking your cell door after 23 hours in a glorified latrine. 

There were some positives in these reports. Terrorist risk management and counter-corruption work received positive praise in both prisons. But I find this difficult to reconcile with the negative comments on the broader environment that these processes must take place in. Looking after very dangerous prisoners well requires suitable and sufficient numbers of staff clearly and confidently in charge.

Moreover, we have only a small number of these prisons, with a large number of senior officials in our huge HQ cadre (5,000+) accountable for monitoring and improving their performance. Why did it take a rare unannounced inspection of the prison to alert these senior bureaucrats to the squalor found at HMP Whitemoor? Leaders at HMP Long Lartin had overstated their achievements and seemed unaware of some of the key concerns identified by external auditing. How was this misplaced optimism not picked up by line managers paid handsomely to do just that?

Managing people facing years in jail, with little to lose from lashing out, is a profoundly difficult task. Add a small population of terrorist prisoners to the mix, combine it with a recruitment and retention crisis  and you have a job description that would cripple even the most effective managers. It astounded me that until relatively recently the governors of these establishments had a lower status and pay than  senior civil servants, many of whom I wouldn’t pay in washers.

But for all of these huge challenges, a failure to keep prisons, with a literally captive workforce, clean and tidy is a foreseeable and preventable blight that ought to act as a flashing red warning light on Justice Secretary Dominic Raab’s busy dashboard. The prison service HQ action plan for HMP Whitemoor in response to its inspection contains the word ‘review’ no less than 31 times.

That sounds like a bad case of ‘all hat and no cattle’, as a Texan would say. You don’t need reviews to empty the cells or the bins. The question now is, what other problems are hiding in the muck?

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.