There was a steady month on month increase in the number of violent incidents at a troubled Devon prison placed in the ‘urgent notification’ process because of soaring levels of violence four years ago. The latest Independent Monitoring Board report on HMP Exeter recorded an increase each month in the Victorian category B prison from an average of 18 per month at the start of the year to about 25 per month in December last year. Following the last full inspection of the prison in 2018, inspectors issued an ‘urgent notification’ to the Secretary of State for Justice which was the second time such a sanction had been made.
According to the latest IMB report, two-thirds of violent incidents involved prisoner-on-prisoner violence and one-third were assaults on staff. There were 128 assaults on staff in the prison in the last 12 months – ‘a very disappointing increase’ from 75 in 2020.
The watchdog body noted ‘staffing challenges’ at the jail recording that one in three officers had been appointed in the previous year and that less experienced staff ‘found the transition from lockdown difficult’. ‘The Board believes that as a profession, prison officers do not always receive the same kind of parity as some other public servants (for example, priority with the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out) and that this often leads to perceptions of being undervalued,’ the IMB said. Inspectors called on the prisons minister, Victoria Atkins, to ‘exert influence to help the retention of prison officers by recognising the work they do and ensuring parity with other public servant roles’.
‘The overcrowded conditions and severely restricted regime resulting from the Covid pandemic has meant that living conditions have not always been humane,’ reported the IMB. ‘… some issues with clothing and kit have undermined the decency agenda.’ There was evidence that Covid-19 symptomatic prisoners and those sharing a cell mates were unable to leave their cells for at least 10 days. ‘In this respect arrangements for such prisoners were not decent,’ the report noted. Some prisoners were not able to have a daily shower.
The IMB noted a sharp rise in incidents of self-harm to ‘a very high monthly rate’ of about 70 with a small number of prisoners accounting for the majority of incidents – in December 2021, 37 (52%) of the 71 incidents were caused by just seven prisoners.