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Swaleside prison in Sheppey 'buckling' from staffing crisis, warn inspectors

Inspectors have slammed a high security prison for failing to improve after it was labelled "poor" a year ago.

In a return visit, they discovered HMP Swaleside at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey had made "little progress" since the previous inspection.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said today (Oct 5): “The overall message from this independent review was that no meaningful progress had been made in addressing staff shortfalls which meant staffing was now at crisis point and was having an impact of on all aspects of the regime.”

He warned that "more is needed to be done to retain staff" and called on the Ministry of Justice to take "immediate action" to ensure the jail had more new officers.

He said: "I strongly urge leaders at all levels to find solutions as without continued vigour, outcomes for the prison and the public will deteriorate even further."

Inspectors said violence inside remained high and that members of both staff and prisoners felt unsafe.

Although self-harm had reduced considerably, the standard of documentation for those at risk remained poor.

A long-term prisoner at HMP Swaleside
A long-term prisoner at HMP Swaleside

The report highlighted there had been four self-inflicted deaths in the eight months since the previous inspection and a fifth had happened two months after the latest visit in July.

Staff shortages meant prisoners' time out of their cells was severely limited to up to three-and-a-half hours a day.

Despite a recruitment drive highlighting the range of jobs available inside and visits to job fairs and universities, "insufficient progress" had been made. There was a shortage of workshop instructors, probation officers and caterers.

The number of officers employed was worse than before, with an estimated 50 vacancies. An insider admitted conditions were "pretty tough" and predicted the coming months would be "extremely alarming".

Inspectors said: "Many of the officers we spoke to were exhausted and under considerable pressure and some said they were on the brink of resigning. The crisis was apparent on the wings. We were concerned about volatility and the staff’s lack of control over prisoners."

One of the wings at HMP Swaleside
One of the wings at HMP Swaleside

Education classes and workshops were often closed more times than they were open because of lack of staff.

Mr Taylor added: "We understand that just last week the prison had to call for specialist help to contain serious concerted indiscipline. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.”

Despite desperate efforts to keep staff, more have left than joined over the past nine months.

Last year, inspectors found the jail's "safety and purposeful activity" were "not sufficiently good" and rehabilitation and release planning were "poor" - the lowest grade. In the return visit the team of eight followed up 13 previous recommendations and found there had been "good progress" in two, "reasonable progress" in four but "insufficient progress" in four and "no meaningful progress" in three.

Governor Mark Icke said he was unable to comment on the report.

Mark Icke, Governor at HMP Swaleside
Mark Icke, Governor at HMP Swaleside

The Ministry of Justice was asked for a comment.

Swaleside was opened in 1988 and is a category B training prison for men.

It can hold more than 1,000 prisoners. It has previously described as "stab city" by former inmates and has suffered at least two major riots.

Rob Preece, from the Howard League for Penal Reform, commented on how concerning the report's findings are, and how the lack of staff can have affect the mental health of detainees.

He said: "We’re now at two thirds of the desired workforce to get Swaleside running as it should. What that means is that people are stuck in their cells for hours on end with nothing to do, and that will ultimately lead to more crime.

"What does it mean when people are locked inside their cells for hours on end? They're not getting involved in any education, employment training, exercise - all the things that are very important for their mental health - but also for learning and developing the life skills that they'll require when they come to be released, in order to find work on the outside.

"When you have people locked inside their cells for that period of time, it does increase the tension. It's not preparing people for their release and it's not setting people up to succeed when they come to be returned to the community."

Damage after the riot at HMP Swaleside in December 2017
Damage after the riot at HMP Swaleside in December 2017

He added: "I think one of the worrying lines, there are many worrying lines in this report, but perhaps the most worrying is that actually more people have left the workforce in Swaleside than joined it in the nine months since the previous inspection.

"I think the lesson from this is that we need to ensure that prisons are properly resourced, but we also need to row back a bit because the government right now has plans to build more prisons and wants to expand the prison population by 20,000- that's about 25% - by the early part of 2026. And we are having reports like Swaleside say that there aren't people working in prisons to look after everyone at the moment.

"So how can we possibly embark on a big prison expansion plan when there aren't enough people to look after the people that are currently in the system?

"We need to row back on that and we need to accept that if we continue to par more and more demand on this creaking system, it will lead to more problems and those problems will spill out from prisons into communities in the long run."

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