The staffing situation at HMP Onley, a Category C men’s prison in rural Northamptonshire, was described as ‘one of the worst I have seen’ by Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor in the prison’s latest inspection report. The report, published this week following unannounced inspections carried out in May and June, also described the prison, which is run by Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS), as ‘unable to deliver a proper category C regime.’
Staffing issues were having a significant effect on the prison regime, inspectors found, with opportunities for work, education, and time out of cell for prisoners seriously curtailed as a result. Inspectors identified a shortfall of around 40 prison officers, 20 operational support grades, nine workshop instructors, and more than half of the catering staff posts were vacant. These shortages had affected nearly all aspects of life inside the prison, including time out of cell, the quality of food provided, rehabilitation and release planning, the management and transportation of prisoners’ property from other prisons, access to the gym, and education and training activities. ‘Outcomes for prisoners’ has sunk to ‘poor’ from ‘not sufficiently good’ at the last inspection in 2018.
Access to basic medical care had also been affected by staffing problems: a new contract for healthcare provision had recently been awarded, ‘which had prompted some staff to resign, further increasing the number of vacancies’, while the shortfall in prison officers ‘had led to missed appointments, wasted clinical time and extended waiting lists’. The mental health team had multiple staff vacancies and no dedicated administrative support staff, which was having a negative impact on clinical work and time spent with patients, although it was ‘unclear’ to inspectors why the administrative support post had not yet been filled. At HMP Onley, 49% of prisoners reported having a mental health problem, and an average of 32 prisoners were being referred to mental health services every month.
The education provider had ‘underperformed and had been unable to recruit enough staff’, leading to a ‘curtailed’ regime for the 732 prisoners, less than half of whom were in work or education—despite the prison’s status as a training prison—with ‘too few opportunities to gain new skills and knowledge’ available. Workshops lay empty, greenhouses in the ‘market garden’ were falling apart, and the planting beds were overgrown with weeds. For those who were able to access education or work activities, the quality of education they were receiving was ‘poor’, allocation of prisoners to education and training classes was ‘ineffective’, teaching sessions ‘lacked structure’, and the work available to prisoners thorough training schemes had ‘very low rates of pay’.
The report noted that the staffing problem was impacted by the fact that a privately-operated prison, HMP Rye Hill, was located minutes from HMP Onley, with the G4S-managed HMP Rye Hill ‘able to pay a substantially higher starting salary to new officers and operational support grades’. Other nearby prisons, although ‘themselves struggling with staffing levels’, were still ‘able to pay a market supplement’ to attract staff.
Inspectors highlighted a number of other key concerns, including escorting arrangements, oversight and accountability in relation to the use of force by officers, the lack of tailored support for those serving indeterminate sentences, and an underdeveloped social care system. There was also little support for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller prisoners, foreign national prisoners, disabled prisoners, and LGBTQ+ prisoners. The prison ‘had yet to forge links with local or national LGBT support networks’, and one inmate, a transgender woman, was still waiting for female prison-issue clothing after nine months, and had ‘only limited access’ to gender-affirming products such as makeup.
The Chief Inspector concluded that ‘[l]ower levels of violence, and the end of COVID-19 restrictions, offer a springboard for leaders at Onley to open up the regime and motivate prisoners, many of whom have become indolent after two years of lockdowns, so that the prison can really fulfil its function as a category C prison’. However, he added, unless the ‘dire staffing situation’ improves, ‘it is hard to see to see how this can be achieved.’