About 20 years ago – as a young and naïve trainee solicitor – I travelled from London to Lincoln prison to see a client, writes Matt Evans. The prison was built in 1872 and everything from its austere building to the atmosphere inside reeked of Victorian England.

Although, I have never had any reason to go back and nor, given that all travel time is now disallowed under the LSC prison law contract, am I ever likely to, I was not surprised to find that two decades on little had seemingly changed according to a recent report from the HMP Inspectorate of Prisons.

The report and findings – after an unannounced visit in August – were published a few days ago. They make for grim reading and, to put it mildly, identified serious failings at the category B prison.

At the time of the inspection, there was speculation about the prison’s future. A decision by the Ministry of Justice has since been announced on November 29 to keep the prison running, after a public outcry that up to 500 jobs would be lost with its closure. The ministry had been looking at proposals to turn the jail into a holding centre for asylum seekers or downgrading it to a category C prison. According to the Chief Inspectorate this may have caused uncertainty and poor morale among staff, with any good points about the prison being ‘undermined by a serious lack of professionalism in many areas that compromised safety and the smooth running of the prison’.

Violent and bullying
The Inspectors found that prisoners at the overcrowded city jail (holding 50% more prisoners than it was certified to handle with 20% fewer staff in post than there were three years ago), were often too scared to leave their wings to go to work due to high levels of violence and bullying in the facility.

Alcohol and drugs were freely available and there was clear evidence of inmates developing addictions. Inmates at risk of suicide were held in a ‘grim’ poorly ventilated cell that sits opposite a ‘dirty protest’ room.

There was a ‘significant shortage’ of trained listeners (inmates trained to support those at risk of self-harm) at the prison. Problems with poor phone signals were also affecting prisoners’ access to a Samaritans’ direct helpline that had been set up for people in crisis.

In addition to the ‘cramped and dirty’ conditions, there was found to be a shocking the lack of support for foreign national prisoners which was ‘a matter of great concern’. It was discovered that two foreign nationals, had been detained after the date their sentences ended – in one case for nine years. A UK Border Agency spokesperson, with the kind of compassion now synonymous with that particular arm of government, said the ‘extended’ period of detention was necessary for the two individuals who had been described as ‘extremely dangerous’. ‘One of them had absconded before and the other had previously failed to comply with his bail conditions,’ the agency said. That’s all right then.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of NOMS, said: ‘I acknowledge that the performance at Lincoln has declined. This is not acceptable and we have taken urgent action to address the chief inspector’s concerns.’ These words would be less mealy-mouthed had Lincoln Prison been a shining beacon of good practice and care in the past. However a similarly unannounced visit and inspection report in 2005 had found that the prison was ‘still not a sufficiently safe prison’: suicide and self harm prevention measures were inconsistent; provision for foreign national prisoners remained weak; and the prison was so lacking in ‘purposeful activity’ that it offered little more than ‘warehousing’ to the people it incarcerated.

Perhaps what Michael Spurr (a career long NOMS incumbent) meant to say was that the report gave him a profound sense of déjà vu and that he was now going to do the honourable thing and fall on his proverbial sword and resign. But alas not – instead the hapless Governor of Lincoln prison was replaced.

HMP Lincoln is not an isolated example. As well as a significant number of prisons being, I think this is correct legal terminology, ‘slated’, there have also been thematic reviews which have criticised – often heavily – how vulnerable groups within prison such as women prisoners, children and young people and the disabled are treated and cared for. Prisoners from a black and ethnic minority background as well as Muslim and foreign national prisoners also consistently report poorer perceptions around their treatment and conditions as compared to their white counterparts.

The UK is obliged to independently monitor all places of detention under the conveniently titled ‘Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’ (OPCAT). What Lincoln shows is the continued importance of the Inspectorate in preventing and highlighting poor treatment – and the need for it to resist attempts to undermine or compromise that independence.

Profile photo of Jon Robins About Jon Robins
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award

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