Prison Inspections

Severely overcrowded HMP Leeds still violent and unsafe, says Chief Inspector

HMP Leeds, a large and “severely overcrowded” inner-city Victorian prison, was assessed by prison inspectors, for the second consecutive inspection, as unsafe with high levels of violence, according to a new report on the West Yorkshire jail.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, urged HMP Leeds to tackle the causes of the ‘poor’ safety assessment as there were “cautious grounds for optimism” that, with greater safety, the management could improve overall performance.

An inspection in December 2015 had found deteriorating standards. When inspectors returned to Leeds in October and November 2017, they found a further decline in purposeful activity – work, education and training for prisoners. There was no improvement in the three other key areas assessed by inspectors – safety, respect and rehabilitation. Mr Clarke said: “Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that the prison is one of the most seriously overcrowded in the country, with 91% of the cells holding more prisoners than they were designed for.” Inspectors found the prison held 1,127 men against a ‘certified normal capacity’ of 669.

Though Leeds had avoided the “shockingly high” increases in violence and drugs seen elsewhere, Mr Clarke said, it was “particularly concerning that, yet again, we found Leeds to be an unsafe prison, with our assessment of the area of safety being a very clear ‘poor’. Levels of violence of all kinds were far too high…Not only did prisoners feel no safer than at the last inspection, the harsh reality was that they were indeed less safe. Violence, self-harm and the use of force were all high. Several staff had been suspended or dismissed for misbehaviour when using force.”

Since 2015, there had been four self-inflicted deaths, and another occurred during this inspection. “The day after the inspection ended, there was an apparent homicide in the jail, and a few days after that another self-inflicted death,” Mr Clarke added. Leeds also had a problem with drugs, with over 60% of prisoners saying it was easy to get hold of drugs.

Against this, however, inspectors noted that there was an “energetic and focused” leadership team. Despite its age and overcrowding, Leeds was generally clean. An “excellent” initiative involved a small group of staff and prisoners called ‘Q-branch’, who carried out maintenance tasks and had a “very impressive” impact. At the time of the inspection, 47% of the staff were still in their probationary period, and prisoners expressed frustration at their inexperience and lack of knowledge of basic procedures. The report noted, though: “Managers were aware of the challenges faced by the large number of new recruits…and were attempting to support them and enhance their skills.” Inspectors were also encouraged by the quality of work on rehabilitation and release planning. The report noted: “Creative links with a range of local businesses were used to enhance employment opportunities for those released. For example, in the last three years Tempus Novo, an energetic and entrepreneurial charity set up locally by two former prison staff, had placed 132 men in employment.”

Mr Clarke said:

“Despite our troubling findings on safety, there were some cautious grounds for optimism. Unlike far too many local prisons, Leeds had not slipped dramatically backwards in terms of its performance in recent years. While it had not managed to buck the trends in violence and the prevalence of drugs that have afflicted much of the wider prison estate, neither had it experienced the shockingly high levels of increase seen in many other prisons. And for that, credit must be given to the energetic and focused leadership of the senior management team…If HMP Leeds can become a safer place in which to hold prisoners, there is no reason why it should not make progress in other areas and show a much stronger performance at the time of the next inspection.

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of HM Prison & Probation Service, said:

“Levels of violence, self-harm and drug-use at HMP Leeds are too high. But decisive action is being taken to tackle the issues. A specialist intelligence unit has been set up and the prison is working with the Police to target drug suppliers. Body-worn cameras are now in place to support staff in reducing violence and we have strengthened incident management and recording systems. The Governor and staff at Leeds are committed to improving the performance of the prison and will use the recommendations in this report to drive progress over the coming months.”