More than half of prisoners at HMP Doncaster are sharing cells built for one person, according to a damning inspection which accused the prison service of ‘sophistry’ for rationalising overcrowded prisons . The Serco-run prison was last inspected in July 2017 and found that around 700 of the 1,100 prisoners were ‘doubled up’ in cells. It also reported that over half of its 46 recommendations had not been achieved two years later.
The inspection highlights alarming an level of self-harm including five self-inflicted deaths in the 12 months prior to the inspection and one shortly after. A ‘dangerous combination’ of the readily available drugs, lack of meaningful activity and overcrowding gave rise to ‘tensions and frustration’. More than six out of 10 prisoners said they found it easy to find drugs (61%). ’[It] was hardly surprising that at times staff struggled to maintain control,’ said Clarke. ‘We saw poor behaviour going unchallenged, and at times it was clearly difficult for staff to maintain.’
Th inspection focussed on the impact of overcrowding. ‘I saw many cells holding two people that were simply not fit to do so, on grounds of both size and simple decency,’ said the chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke. He argued that it was not ‘good enough’ for HM Prison and Probation Services to ‘fall back upon their usual explanation’ that management ‘certified that a certain number of prisoners (in this case 1,145)’ could in their view be held in decent conditions.
‘The sophistry that flows from this is that, in the view of HMPPS, conditions such as those at Doncaster are described as ‘crowded’ but not ‘overcrowded’, and that there is therefore little or no overcrowding across the prison estate. I hope I shall be proved to be wrong, but I fear that yet again our recommendation that prisoners should not be held in such conditions will be rejected.’
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that that the chief inspector was ‘entirely right to call out the “sophistry” that leads to 1,100 men being thrown into a jail meant for 700, and his demand for change must be heard and acted upon’.
‘Finding an answer to the problems in prisons such as Doncaster is one of the biggest challenges in the Secretary of State for Justice’s in-tray as the government starts to look beyond Brexit,’ said Frances Crook. ‘The solution begins with a commitment to reduce the number of people behind bars.’
Overcrowding was exacerbated by the fact that there was not enough for prisoners to do and too many were locked up for too long. More than four out of 10 prisoners (44%) were locked in their cells during the working day and 285 prisoners were unemployed and ‘therefore only going to be out of their cells for around four hours each day. Clarke noted that too many prisoners were allocated as wing workers ‘supposedly cleaning or carrying out similar work’. ‘However, there was far too little for them to do, and we saw many with nothing meaningful to do, with their cleaning equipment lying idle.’