COVID-19 stretching dilapidated Dartmoor prison

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
Copyright Myles Pinkney

Following an inspection in late September, a report published in November highlighted concerns over the impact of lockdown restrictions on the prison. The inspection was described as a ‘more detailed scrutiny inspection’, and was the first such visit to the prison since the lockdown initially lifted.

The condition of the prison was described as ‘dilapidated’ and certain concerns were highlighted including: a lack of resources to prevent drugs from being smuggled in, prisoners being mostly confined to cells during the lockdown plus a doubling in the number of assaults on prison staff since the pandemic first struck.

The Ministry of Justice confirmed last month that there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the prison, and that they had taken ‘precautionary measures’.

Assaults on prison staff doubled in the six months after the lockdown restrictions were introduced in March; 12 assaults against staff had taken place, four of which were considered ‘serious’. However, violence against prisoners had reduced overall in the same period.

The news comes as an anonymous prison officer told the BBC that the pandemic was ‘exasperating emotions among prisoners’ last month, and that there had been more violence than they had seen in many years.

The officer said: “Earlier in the year we had a prisoner punch a member of staff in the nose and attack another three officers, one of them being female, who he struck in the face.

‘Just in the last couple of weeks we had some prisoners fighting on a wing, an officer tried to break it up, and he was rendered unconscious. It really is escalating.”

In response to the officer’s claims, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are investing £2.75 billion to improve prisons and increase security, and giving staff body-worn cameras, police-style restraints and PAVA spray to allow them to do their jobs more safely.”

The spokesman added: “Violence against our hardworking staff will never be tolerated and we will always push for the strongest possible punishment.”

The November report found that owing to lockdown restrictions, most prisoners were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Family contact was also ‘limited’ and there were no in-cell telephones and a shortage of usable phones. The report stated: “There were far too few telephones on the landings, and they could only be used at restricted times. The overall take up of social visits was low, largely because of the level of restrictions in place. More work was needed to support the maintenance of family ties.”

As a recommendation the report suggested that time out of cells for prisoners should be increased to enable more purposeful activities and the opportunity to engage with staff and peers.

The report also found that since the closure notice, the prison was suffering from a lack of investment that has affected the maintenance of the fabric of the building: “Leaking roofs, damp cells and mould were seen in numerous areas.”

The lack of investment also affected family and basic security functions such as the lack of an ion detector to check for illicit substances in the mail, claimed the report.

In summing up the key findings, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said: “Many of the buildings needed capital investment to stop water ingress, equipment was needed to reduce the supply of illicit drugs and facilities such as the visits hall were outdated. In addition, it was clear that the closure notice had affected staff morale. This was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘In our survey, 55% of staff who responded to it said that morale had declined during the pandemic compared to just 5% who said it had improved.”

Public protection measures for the Princetown prison were described as ‘broadly sound’ by the Chief Inspector. However, he added that it was concerning that four prisoners had been released during the pandemic ‘without confirmation of the level of their multi-agency public protection arrangements’.

In conclusion, the inspector’s report said: “Despite the planned closure, Dartmoor continues to hold more than 600 prisoners in accommodation and facilities that need significant investment to make them fit for purpose.

‘Staff have been working under notice of closure for seven years with a predictable impact on morale. The pandemic has made a difficult situation worse. Managers had worked well to implement national guidance, which was positive, and the prison remained reasonably safe and respectful.

‘However, there were significant shortfalls that needed addressing including the poor infrastructure, limited regime and the lack of equality and diversity provision.”

A number of measures to alleviate the concerns have been recommended. Annual reviews for prisoners with long-term conditions are to be undertaken in a more timely and appropriate manner. Improving access to telephones and reviewing social visits restrictions are both hoped to improve morale and reduce assaults against staff.

The Governor of the prison will also be asked to ensure that time spent out of cell for prisoners is increased to enable more purposeful activities, even in light of the current lockdown restrictions.

The prison is scheduled for closure in 2023.

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