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HM Inspectorate of Prisons progress report for HMP Lowdham Grange reveals little improvement despite safety concerns in prison

A progress review of a prison plagued by drugs, self-harm and poor healthcare has revealed little improvement at the facility.

A damning inspection in May 2023 uncovered a host of issues at HMP Lowdham Grange and, after the prison’s conditions continued to deteriorate, it was taken over by the Ministry of Justice in December 2023. The latest official report shows that the picture is yet to improve.

The category B training prison opened in 1998 was run by Serco for 25 years until February 2023, when the contract was transferred to Sodexo — the first handover of its kind in Britain.

HMP Lowdham Grange
HMP Lowdham Grange

Prior to the ‘step-in’ a new director had taken over in October 2023 and created a strategy intended to address safety, staffing, regime and improve partnerships with key stakeholders, including recruiting experienced managers from other Sodexo prisons to support the strategy.

Inspectors outlined how the strategy was “hindered by serious staffing shortfalls” with 127 staff resignations between February and December 2023.

In a response to the May inspection report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the The Howard League for Penal Reform said the transition between private providers left almost every aspect of the prison in turmoil.

The May inspection highlighted key areas of concern including a lack of safety, high levels of self-harm, insufficient oversight and accountability for custody officers, lengthy segregations with no regime or clear reintegration plans, health care staff shortages, lack of opportunity for prisoners to take part in risk-reducing programmes and poor pre-release and public protection plans.

A progress report published yesterday (February 20) found either no meaningful progress or insufficient progress had been made towards improving all of those concerns.

Inspectors found that recorded rates of violence were 55% higher in the last six months than in the six months before the full inspection, and found some instances of poor recording, which meant that inspectors could not be confident that all incidents were logged appropriately.

HMP Lowdham Grange
HMP Lowdham Grange

The report stated: “There were currently around 20 prisoners self-isolating because they feared for their safety on the wings. They had a very poor regime and there was insufficient oversight of their welfare; for example, some told us that they continued to receive verbal abuse from other prisoners, and some had derogatory graffiti daubed on their cell doors that had not been removed.”

Inspectors also frequently observed “low-level poor behaviour” in the prison, with prisoners vaping in communal areas, dressed inappropriately or openly defying staff authority.

An increase was also reported in illicit drug use, with 40% of prisoners testing positive during random drug tests over the past six months, compared with 19% in the same period before the last full inspection. A targeted search over the Christmas period had led to over 600 litres of hooch being recovered.

The report stated: “More positively, there was very early evidence that actions taken since step-in, had begun to improve safety and reduce protesting behaviour.

“There were plans to introduce netting on the yards and replace the windows on the two main houseblocks, to prevent the ingress of drugs.”

Inspectors noted that while “credible plans” has been made to tackle oversight of use of force in the prison, including the appointment of a use of force coordinator and resuming scrutiny of footage showing use of force, “the issue of staff not routinely drawing body-worn video cameras had not been addressed effectively” and “a large number of use of force statements were still outstanding” at the time of the progress report.

Concerns still remained for segregated prisoners, one of whom had been segregated for 180 days. They were permitted just 30 minutes’ access to fresh air and could take a “grubby” shower each day.

They also had limited reading materials and were not aware they could ask to attend religious services, subject to risk assessment, were not given sufficient privacy or opportunity to contribute to review boards, nor given appropriate targets to support reintegration.

Inspectors noted “early signs of improvement” since the Ministry of Justice stepped in.

Rates of self-harm also remained high in the prison in the period since the May inspection, with a 41% increase in the self-harm rate per 1,000 prisoners from the six months leading to the May inspection and the six months afterwards. Inspectors said they “could not be confident that appropriate support was in place for those in crisis”, due to lacking documentation, although prisoners “reported feeling cared for by staff”.

The report described “skeletal staffing levels” in the safer custody team, which “significantly impeded their ability to support key safety functions”.

The number of self-inflicted deaths also remained a concern for inspectors. The report stated there had been two self-inflicted deaths since the inspection, which brought the total to five self-inflicted deaths in 2023.

Healthcare in the prison remained lacking, due to “chronic prison staff shortages and the volatility of the establishment”, despite an improvement in the recruitment of healthcare staff and emergency strategic meetings held with prison senior leaders, NHS England and the health provider, although some improvements had been made allowing patients to see a GP or advanced nurse practitioner for essential issues promptly, and a “good uptake” of covid-19 and flu vaccinations.

Andrea Coomber, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The continuing problems at Lowdham Grange should remind everyone that, while crumbling Victorian prisons get most attention, there are major issues in newer jails as well.

“This prison only opened a quarter of a century ago but, like so many others, it is paralysed by staff shortages and is failing to meet even the basic needs of the hundreds of men living there. This report confirms what the men tell the Howard League, that not enough is being done to support people in mental health crisis and to keep them safe.

“It exposes the fallacy of the government’s plan to solve the prisons crisis by building new jails. Any serious attempt to reduce crime should begin with investment in housing, education and jobs.”

A number of concerns had also been raised by Ofsted during the May inspection.

The monitoring body has now reported reasonable progress on prisoners being provided with sufficient places in education, skills and work, an extended and broadened education and vocational training curriculum, and an improvement in support for prisoners with additional learning needs.

HMP Lowdham Grange can hold up to 900 adult men, many convicted of very serious offences.

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