Skip to main content

March 2019 — Progress On The 10 Prisons Project

Minutes of the meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 26 March 2019

Guest speakers

Rory Stewart OBE MP Minister of State, Minister of Justice
Sara Pennington, Governor, HMP Wormwood Scrubs
Louise Spencer, Prison Group Director, London
Emily Thomas, Governor HMP Isis
Craig Bell, Prison Officer, Wormwood Scrubs
Meda Lampreia, Residential Unit Manager, Wormwood Scrubs


Lord Ramsbotham (in the chair)
Earl Attlee
Lord Dubs
Lord Hailsham
Baroness Howe
Lord Judd
Baroness Masham of Ilton

Lord Ramsbotham welcomed everyone to the meeting, and introduced Rory Stewart MP, the Prisons MinisterRory Stewart explained that he had brought two prison governors and two prison officers to the meeting, and also the Prisons Group Director for London, all of whom would speak when the division bells sounded and he had to leave the meeting to vote. (This happened immediately, and several times during the meeting.)

Lord Ramsbotham explained that the meeting was designed as a follow-up session to the previous one, held last year. The Minister had asked to return to give the Group an update regarding the ten prisons he had selected to measure progress, and the group had been delighted to arrange an extra meeting. He had also brought a presentation, which was displayed on screens around the table, and one larger screen to the side.

Rory Stewart, MP began by apologising for his departure to vote. He then invited the prison officers and governors that he had brought with him to introduce themselves. Emily Thomas, Governor of HMP ISIS in South London; Louise Spencer, Prison Group Director for London; Sara Pennington, Governor of HMP Wormwood Scrubs; Meda Lampreia, Prison Officer and residential unit manager at Wormwood Scrubs; and Craig Bell, Prison Officer, Supervisor and part of the Standards Coaching Team at Wormwood Scrubs, all did so.

Rory Stewart MP began by explaining the ten prisons project. ‘We began with a pretty depressing situation. Essentially we took over a situation where, for a range of different reasons, including staff cuts, including drugs, violence in particular was beginning to get seriously out of control. In the ten prisons on which we decided to focus, the number of violent assaults had almost tripled in a five year period; the number of weapons in those prisons had nearly tripled in a five year period; the number of drugs in those prisons had at least doubled in a five year period. In addition to the problems with violence and drugs – and of course the two are related because these new types of drugs, particularly spice and other psychoactive substances drive aggressive behaviour – there was a fundamental problem around decency. This came to my attention in January last year, with the inspection in Liverpool, where we found an enormous number of broken windows, huge piles of rubbish, and the inspectors were very frank about their sense of the failings.

So we had a complicated process in which we concluded that rather than try to turn around all the prisons in the country at once, we would choose ten prisons and see if we could demonstrate an approach which could tackle drugs, violence and decency, and show what a good prison would look like, and prove that we could, in a twelve month period, make a significant difference to ten key prisons. The choice of these ten prisons was somewhat controversial. We had to balance two things: one was finding prisons that were genuinely challenged, and another problem was that if we changed things in one prison but not in the next door prison we had a displacement risk. In other words, increase perimeter security in prison A and ten miles away we would see the drugs pop up in prison B. So we decided on a geographical focus on Yorkshire particularly, but we also took in Nottingham, and Wormwood Scrubs and Isis in London. That has given us a fair spread. Some of those prisons were performing quite well – one of them, Hull prison, performing very well – but others of them such as Nottingham, which got an urgent notification from inspectors, and Wormwood Scrubs which is a notoriously difficult prison, are by any measure among the most difficult prisons in our estate.

So, drugs were tackled by a bigger focus on pretty old-fashioned perimeter security. This again was relatively controversial. There is a big debate within the system about how you get the balance right, between stopping supply and stopping demand. Our judgement was that we needed to do a little bit more on the supply side, and that we were not actually good enough at basic protective security measures, such as perimeter searching. Some of the officers have gone off that. So at a lot of these prisons you will see a lot of investment in perimeter security, perimeter patrols, additional staff for searching, and the discovery of more drugs. In Wormwood Scrubs I think we tripled the number of drugs, in the period between when I first turned up there and now. X-ray body scanners are coming in more slowly. The first one is in Leeds. That really is a pretty dramatic object. It can see drugs carried inside your person for the first time. We had to take through legal changes to allow you to turn up the resolution on this thing to be able to look inside someone’s body. There is also a sophisticated machine called a Rapiscan, to detect drugs impregnated in someone’s mail, or their clothing, which is quite common. We can pick that up quite quickly by swabbing.

The real lesson I went through, though, is that I began by worrying about the physical infrastructure of these buildings. I then became increasingly focused on drugs, and on violence. Then I finally concluded that the real core of it was staff, and in particular the way in which we supported and trained staff, and the way in which everything from the leadership to the expectations we set for staff and prisoners, to the training and culture, needed to change. That is both very basic things like getting back to basics on searching techniques, fabric cell inspections, and writing a prison officers guide. That is very important, particularly because we have an enormous number of young prison officers who have joined the service quite recently. Going back twenty years, the cliché was, you would arrive on a landing and the other eight people working with you would have been there for twenty years. You would learn your jailcraft over ten years. Today you turn up and 85% of the people have been there for less than a year. So we have to be much better at spelling out very clearly in words of one syllable how to do the job, and supporting people as they learn to do it, rather than assuming they are going to pick it up over time. This guide was written by prison officers, so it very much reflects their views on the basic jobs, in terms of working around the landing.

Probably the most exciting thing was the Standards Coaching Team (SCT), and we have a representative of that team here. This was an idea to bring some of our best uniformed officers from across the service together, for a two week period at Newbold Revel, to focus upon how they become mentors and trainers, to go into some of our most troubled prisons, and above all listen. They begin by listening to the staff, win over their confidence, then work alongside officers on the landings in order to reinforce them, and get the basic standards and expectations improved. These are some of the ways we motivate people: we talk about decency, and how we feel when we see some of these scenes (from the presentation: of chaotic cells, and piles of rubbish). We talk about broken windows and how they could represent morale: as well as making it easy to stick your hand out of the window and take drugs from a drone they are also disgusting. Hence the repairs. We show the before and after pictures (of cells).’

At this point Rory Stewart handed over to Emily Thomas, Governor of Isis Prison.

Emily Thomas: ‘Would it be helpful if I talked for a couple of minutes about what the experience has been like, at Isis, and then I am happy to answer questions? Isis is a prison in South East London, right next to Belmarsh and within its perimeter. I hold 628 men, all from the London area, the vast majority of whom are aged 18-25.We are a training prison, so we don’t hold anyone from courts, or on remand. We hold men who have been sentenced, and who have in general got more than 12 months to serve. But because of the age range of our population, and because they are drawn from the London area, we have to manage quite a significant amount of gang conflict, and issues coming in with them from the community. Isis has historically (although it has only been open for ten years) had very high levels of violence. We’ve tried to manage some of those issues, and young adult men, as an entire group within the prison system, are particularly violent. We were identified as one of the ten prisons, and one of the really significant issues for us was about tackling the illicit economy within the prison. For all prisons, that’s drugs, but it’s also mobile phones, and other items that support the illicit economy.

We have benefitted from the ten prisons project: we’ve been able to have the investment, not only in the machinery which supports the detecting of drugs coming in through the main gate, through visits and through the post, but also in the staff who are necessary to work those machines, to deliver things like gate security throughout the main part of the day. So far, the work we’ve done since last October has seen quite a significant increase in the positive mandatory drug testing rate within the prison. It’s an on-going battle, because as we strengthen our gate security, as we strengthen our security within visits and on the post, the aim of the illicit economy is to find other routes into the prison. But we know that we have strengthened quite considerably the main routes into the prison for substances and mobile phones. We think that is having a positive impact on our violence levels.

But as the Minister said, particularly in London prisons, the challenge of recruiting and retaining prison officers is a constant one. Certainly in 2017, and most of 2018, we had recruited a significant number of prison officers, which meant that around 80% of my workforce at prison officer level were in their first year within the organisation, and the managerial levels above them did not have that much experience either. We have also benefitted from the work that has been delivered, both through the SCT, and investment in the Prison Officer Guide, and also how we structure our communications within the prison. We have done a lot of work around getting better at ensuring that vital information is communicated between teams of staff at critical times of the day, so that important safety issues are not missed by staff about to go and work on the landings. We have not had the full SCT effect yet, because we are only in phase two, but we have had staff who have gone to be trained as part of the STC training roll-out, who currently work for me, and who have been able to be deployed to support mentoring, coaching and development of prison officers on my residential units on a daily basis. We know that that, in conjunction with the use of the Prison Officer Guide, has been very helpful to reiterate and to embed the focus on the really key critical information and work that needs to be done, the work which we know to be safety-critical within the prison.

We are a fairly new prison, but even so some of the decision that were made about building Isis were not brilliant, as previous inspection reports have pointed out. So we have also had investment in decency projects which have been really beneficial. We are currently having a roll-out of toilet seats across the prison. Unless you have ever lacked one, I do not think you realise how important that is. I was really surprised by the positive impact on my prisoners of telling them that we were installing toilet seats with lids in every room in the prison. Particularly because some of those are single cells being used as double cells, privacy is a real issue for us. We know that is having a positive impact. We are also rolling out improved shower heads. We have a young population and they spend a lot of time in the gym. It is important for them to feel good about themselves. With our current showers, you have to stand very close to a wall in order to hope that a dribble of water might hit you. So we are getting much better and more effective showers. Unless you have been in a prison or that kind of environment, it is difficult to quantify the importance of something so simple on how people feel about how we are treating them, and how important some of those really basic standards are for their delivery.’

Baroness Masham asked whether Isis held prisoners of many nationalities.

Emily Thomas replied that the vast majority of prisoners were British, but 75% were from BAME backgrounds. Only about 50 were foreign nationals.

Louise Spencer commented that there was a broader mix of nationalities in other London prisons, for example Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth.

Lord Hailsham wondered about staffing issues. He recalled significant numbers of mature officers in earlier times, yet now it sounded as though there were mostly young officers. What was causing this recruitment and retention problem?

Emily Thomas responded that there were real regional differences. London had historically always had a more mobile workforce than in other areas. Some of it was about pay or opportunity. Also young people thought differently about their careers now, maybe only ever intending to spend a few years in a job, unlike their predecessors. That was not necessarily a bad thing. Over the past year, an effort had been made to ensure recruitment processes kept up with retention, acknowledging a certain level of attrition was likely.

Rory Stewart MP added that they would now be reintroducing an interview process to make sure people understood what they were going in to. We now had more prison officers than we had had since 2012. There was a very steep drop between 2010 and 2012. There were now 4,700 officers more. Living in London was very expensive, and in the London prisons and some of the outer London prisons too, people required a supplement. But there had also been some problems in Winchester, in Bristol and in Aylesbury. It was not just a London issue.

Lord Dubs asked what proportion of prison staff were from BAME backgrounds.

Emily Thomas said that the figure in Isis was currently between 20-30%. Across London it was about 30%.

Louise Spencer added that some of the difficulty in giving precise figures was that applicants did not always disclose that information. They were working to encourage more disclosure. It was a priority not only to recruit people representative of the whole community, but also to ensure there was scope for their progression as well.

Rory Stewart MP invited the four other Prison Service staff to speak, starting with the officers, talking about their experience on the landings and about some of the cultural changes necessary. This would echo some of the changes that had had to happen in tough schools, with the added problem of high turnover. Some prisoners might be there for only a number of days before moving on. Increasing emphasis was put on relationships, but forming relationships was difficult if people were moving often. Therefore it was also necessary to focus on consistency and high standards.

Craig Bell introduced himself as one of the supervising officers, originally from Wormwood Scrubs, and part of the SCT. ‘I went to Newbold Revel, the Prison Service College, for two weeks, for quite an intensive course in coaching, and how to guide staff, in conjunction with the Prison Officer Guide, about best practice and how to do the job of a prison officer. Before I took up the role with the SCT I was also a support mentor for new staff at Wormwood Scrubs, when they came back from college, to give them direction, do regular jailcraft sessions with them on a Friday, and point them in the right direction. We run little classes on how you do a cell search, how you open doors, and how you do rub down searches, and that sort of thing. Being part of the SCT has meant that we could go out to wings, to guide staff, to watch what they do, and empower staff to be able to challenge prisoners, in a way that they couldn’t previously. As the Minister mentioned, so many have come in through the system that new staff coming back from college might find that they have somebody guiding them who has been in the system only four or five weeks longer than them. It takes a lot longer than that to learn your jailcraft. I joined the Prison Service in 2003, and I had spent nineteen years in the army before that. I originally started at Wandsworth. It took me a long time to pick up on things. But the good thing that I had was experienced officers guiding me. The new recruits don’t have that at the moment.

By bringing the Prisoners Officers Guide and the SCT in, within Wormwood Scrubs I would say things have changed quite dramatically, on the bigger areas. For instance, the op cap (operational capacity) on C Wing is 317 prisoners – it has been reduced at present because of window repairs. But some actual prisons do not hold as many as 317 prisoners. So that shows you how big Wormwood Scrubs is, and the problems that we have. The main two problems, to be honest, were the bigger wings, Alpha Wing and Charlie Wing. Since the teams have gone on there, the use of force, where we have had to intervene with prisoners and split people up, or restrain prisoners who have become violent, has reduced, purely because the staff are there and are being pointed in the right direction, in conjunction with the Prison Officers Guide where they can get the information they need.

What we initially did, when we went into the SCT, was to take a step back for the first couple of weeks, to see what staff actually did. When they go to college initially, to be honest, I don’t think that ten weeks is long enough, because it does not give you the experience you need. When they come back we have to point them in the right direction as to how each establishment works. The whole point of the Prison Officer Guide is to standardise things, so that everyone is singing from the same song sheet. Up until this point, I would say it has been a great success. The use of force has gone down, prisoner complaints have reduced, and staff are now more empowered to deal with conflict and deescalate, as opposed to restraining prisoners straight away. The main priority now is to chat with someone. Also linked with that we have got the OMIC scheme (Offender Manager in Custody) which gives a man a one-to-one, where he can speak to a member of staff, meet regularly, and pass on any information they want. The officer can give them guidance as well. So linked in with OMIC I would say, for busy London prisons, the SCT is obviously the way forward.’

Meda Lampreia introduced herself as the manager of one of the residential units at Wormwood Scrubs. ‘As a manager on that unit I have got approximately 80% new staff, people on probation who have got less than a year’s service. So from my point of view, when they came into the prison, I felt I had a team of men and women who were each out for themselves – they really did not know how to gel as a team. All of them lacked experience. The SCT have helped me to build my team. I might give a morning briefing and a mid-morning briefing, and touch base regularly throughout the day. But at one point it was only me setting out the briefing, setting out what I expected, and they weren’t hearing it from anybody else. But when SCT came in, with their experience, when I wasn’t there – or even while I was – they were there to support, offering explanations as to why we do things, empowering staff as to how to go about resolving an issue, no matter how minor it might be. For those of you who have been into a gaol with a layout like Wormwood Scrubs, you have got your ground floor right the way up to your fours landing, so if you’ve got two staff on your fours landing, both of whom have got less than a year’s experience, they are up three or four flights of stairs. It’s quite isolating. So it’s not just about gelling as a team when you are all in an office having a briefing, it is about working together and having your eyes and ears on each other, supporting each other, asking the questions. In terms of challenging prisoners, in terms of driving as a team, asking questions and communicating, for me as a wing manager the SCT has been invaluable, and a great support. I now feel I have a well-gelled team on B wing, and I wouldn’t have been able to turn it round as quickly without the support, the input and the experience that SCT has offered me.’

Lord Ramsbotham mentioned that the previous Governor, Steve Bryant, and told him that one of the problems with managing Wormwood Scrubs was the number of different types of prisoner held there. He had mentioned particularly the young adults, and said that no staff were trained to look after them, and he had no resources for them. Had that improved?

Louise Spencer said that she knew that Steve Bryant had talked about his concerns about young adults and violence. It would come as no surprise to anyone who had worked with young people that they were impulsive and their decision-making was not necessarily mature: they could more easily commit acts of violence. Across London they were working on a young adult strategy, which Emily was leading on. They were looking at interventions to support young men and meet their needs, but there was no quick fix.

Lord Hailsham asked how meaningful activity outside the cells was managed, given the rapid turnover.

Sara Pennington responded: ‘It is a challenge, and we are working very hard to increase the allocation of men to activities and improve their attendance. One way we have done that is to move the allocations team to CM Lampreia’s wing, which is the induction wing, so we can allocate men as soon as they come into custody to something they want to do. But if they are on remand they may not want to engage in activity.’

Lord Hailsham asked whether it was compulsory.

Sara Pennington confirmed that it was not compulsory for those on remand. ‘But what we have been doing, as well, although it is not a priority while we are trying to get the basics right at Scrubs, is introducing activities that might appeal to young men who might not want to engage in traditional education. We have been introducing a similar programme to Isis, called Aspire Higher, which is about changing attitudes, both in custody and outside, to change men’s focus on life. Also we have introduced a new music programme, which is very appealing to them. But we are at the start of that journey, I think it is fair to say, at Wormwood Scrubs’.

Baroness Masham asked about the medical and nursing staff, and about getting for example diabetics and epileptics out of their cells in time for their drugs.

Meda Lampreia said that the healthcare provider for Wormwood Scrubs provided a list by 8am of all those requiring medication. They would have had their medication by 9am. On some of the bigger units that was more of a challenge – for example on C wing, where there were some on methadone maintenance and drug addiction problems. But generally it worked well. They also ran GP clinics and nursing clinics so that if someone had a genuine healthcare need their name would be on the list and they would get unlocked.

Sara Pennington said that their staffing position was much improved from the situation a year ago, so there should be no reason why those men did not have their healthcare needs met.

Lord Dubs asked what difference the proposal to abandon short sentences would make to prisons.

Rory Stewart MPsaid there should be a caveat on that. The Government had not yet made a decision: the proposal had to go out for consultation. But he was happy for people to reflect on whether they felt that those imprisoned for less than six months were disproportionately difficult to manage, whether they were more liable to be a suicide risk, or were more violent, whether the churn factor added to the stress in prisons – whether prisons would be calmer places otherwise. But there were other reasons why people may receive short sentences. In terms of prison management, he was comfortable to hear reflections: were these prisoners different from other cohorts? This would probably affect Wormwood Scrubs more than Isis.

Emily Thomas said that the average length of stay in Isis, as a training prison, was 11 months. She was certainly not advocating that people should be sentenced for longer, but an 11 month sentence did mean that there was a fighting chance of motivating people to change, being able to put the right interventions in place, and having an orderly regime which met the needs of the population. You could see young men changing their behaviour as they went through their sentence.

Louise Spencer thought there was a difficult balance to be struck. Short sentenced male prisoners often had chaotic lifestyles, and a pattern of repeat low-level offending. Yet there was limited time to do any work of any value. Any alternative to short sentences would need to provide the sort of support that would prevent re-offending, however.

Rory Stewart MP said that, on a recent visit, he had seen a prisoner in the drugs unit of Bedford Prison who had been in that prison eight times in the last year. He said he was a heroin addict and every time he left prison he would shoplift again, and would be put back inside for a short period. This was clearly not deterring him; it was not rehabilitating him, and it didn’t seem to be punishing him; so what was the point? You were wrapping this incredibly expensive and elaborate instrument of the state, a prison, around a person who appeared to be treating it almost as a hostel. He had a strong instinct that prison should be used only for our most serious offenders. The most recent study suggested that 78% of shoplifters were heroin or crack cocaine addicts. The fundamental way of dealing with their shoplifting was to deal with their heroin or crack cocaine addiction.

Earl Atlee asked whether the same applied to muggings.

Rory Stewart MP replied that mugging would attract a much longer maximum sentence. The number of summary only offences – attracting a possible prison sentence of up to six months – was very limited. A mugger could face a sentence of up to seven years, or up to 14 years if GBH was involved.

Lord Ramsbotham asked about mental health.

Rory Stewart MP responded that this was a hugely important issue.

Craig Bell said that Wormwood Scrubs had a health unit that held 16-18 prisoners. However he thought that 70% of prisoners had some sort of mental health issue, and staff had to deal with that, and the conflict that could arise, every day. He explained to new staff that an officer’s job was like Mr Ben, from the children’s programme, who always used to wear different hats. You had to do everyone’s job: policing, saving lives, fighting fires.

Lord Ramsbotham recalled that prison officers used to be told they had to be able to identify different mental illness, so as to be able to point people in the right direction to get help.

Craig Bell responded that he had a lot of dealings with ex-servicemen, in his role as veterans in custody support officer. Within the next fortnight, one of the healthcare managers was getting an outside agency which deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to come in. PTSD was not only a problem for ex-servicemen, but for a lot of other prisoners too. He hoped that would be taken forward, and rolled out for staff.

Louise Spencer added that across London there had been a focus on suicide and self-harm training. She echoed Craig Bell’s words about the need for additional support and training for staff, in dealing with all kinds of mental health issues.

Lord Hailsham said he knew that it had been very difficult for the NHS to secure adequate psychiatric staff, and wondered what the experience for prisons had been.

Louise Spencer said that the need for psychiatric services in prisons was greater than the resource available – as was the case for many other services. They tried to identify prisoners at highest risk.

Lord Judd said that although the message coming across was reassuring in respect of the institutional environment, he was most concerned about what happened when prisoners were released back into the community. He recalled a chief constable telling him about a lad in prison who had cried when yelling him that he was scared about what would happen when he was released. Were we tackling that in any consistent way?

Louise Spencer responded that progress was being made. Craig had referred to OMIC – dedicated one-to-one time with an officer each week. The second phase of OMIC was around better case management for prisoners. Probation support was being brought back into prisons, so that work would start before prisoners were released. Links were being built with employers, to get people into work on release. Accommodation was a challenge, but significant efforts were being made.

Baroness Masham asked the Chairman whether he recalled a joint visit to Stafford Prison, where they had seen a project with ex-serviceman, with an amazing nurse. One said that it was the first time he had seen light at the end of the tunnel.

Louise Spencer agreed that real progress was all about individual relationships.

Baroness Howe said it was clear that everyone was doing their best with limited resources. But there was so much more to be done in the community. What had happened to the Probation Service?

Rory Stewart MP emphasised that these speakers were not from the Probation Service. He would be happy to return to talk about Probation on another occasion.

Baroness Masham congratulated Rory Stewart MP on the recent television programme about the coffee shop in Wormwood Scrubs.

Rory Stewart MP said it was called Redemption Roasters, training prisoners to be baristas. He closed by thanking everyone for their interest in the Ten Prisons Project, and hoped it had been clear that it was possible to make a difference in a seven month period. His parting message was that, although a wide variety of civilians did great work in prison, he felt that the work of prison officers, like the two amazing individuals who had spoken, had been overlooked. They were extraordinary public servants, whose work had not been fully recognised, and together with the managers, who brought everything together, he wanted to thank them all.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked all the speakers most warmly. He had always been taught that unless things were right for staff, nothing would be right for prisoners. The date of the next meeting was unknown, but he very much hoped the Minister would return to talk about Probation.