Urgent calls for action over conditions at Chelmsford Prison

“Violent” and “unsafe” conditions at a men’s prison in Essex have prompted urgent calls for action as standards “declined disturbingly” over the last decade.

A series of inspections have discovered rising deaths and rates of self-harm at HMP & YOI Chelmsford, finding it to be one of the country’s most violent local prisons.

Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland says the findings are “unacceptable” and work has started on improving conditions.

A letter from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor to Mr Buckland revealed safety, negative staff culture, lack of accountability, and a poor daily regime to be key concerns from the latest inspection, which took place between 9-20 August 2021.

The letter reveals there have been eight self-inflicted deaths since 2018 and four non-natural deaths at the prison in three years. Additionally, self-harm levels rose for four consecutive inspections.

In the letter, dated August 26, Mr Taylor wrote: “HMP & YOI Chelmsford is a violent, unsafe prison in which conditions for prisoners have declined disturbingly over recent years, despite attempts by HMPPS to support improvement.

“Many failings stem from a negative and demoralised staff culture which results in little apparent concern for (or attention to) the welfare and basic needs of a complex and, at times, vulnerable population.

“Chelmsford will not improve without a sustained drive to make sure that all staff members take responsibility for ensuring safety, decency and engagement with training and education in a meaningful regime.

“This will require strong, consistent leadership at all levels within the prison and much more effective support from HMPPS than the approach it has taken in recent years, which failed completely to arrest the drift and decline which must have been obvious to the service.”

Mr Buckland said in a statement the Prison Service is seeking to address the situation.

He said: “These findings are unacceptable – Chelmsford is already on our list of prisons receiving priority support but it is clear this work must go further and faster.

“Work has already started on improving accommodation, increasing training and bringing in additional, experienced staff.

“The Prison Service is urgently pursuing every option to ensure that this situation is addressed.”

A statement from the Ministry of Justice also said £130,000 of funding had already been secured to improve the working and living conditions at Chelmsford and the Prison Performance Support Programme (PPSP) is currently supporting the prison.

Mr Taylor has issued a rare Urgent Notification (UN), which allows the Chief Inspector of Prisons to directly alert the Secretary of State if they have an urgent and significant concern about a prison, according to the Government website.

Mr Buckland now has 28 days to respond with a plan outlining what action will be taken.

A statement from HM Inspectorate of Prisons said Mr Taylor’s predecessor, Peter Clarke, decided against instigating the UN protocol in 2018, citing that there may be grounds for some “cautious optimism.”

However, Mr Taylor said in the letter: “We found that the optimism expressed three years ago was misplaced. The latest inspection has shown that these improvements have not materialised.”

Many prisoners are reportedly locked in their cell for almost 23 hours a day, and a lack of accountability and management oversight has allowed poor behaviour from staff to go unchallenged.

The letter says many staff failed to respond to basic requests from prisoners and showed only limited empathy towards them.

Almost half of the prisoners said they had been victimised by staff, particularly those with disabilities and mental health problems.

Since 2018, seven sites have been issued with a UN, excluding Chelmsford.

According to the statement from the Ministry of Justice, five of these sites have been removed from UN oversight due to sustained improvement. The latest site to be removed was Bristol in August 2021.

Charlie Ridler

Local Democracy Reporter