Report on an Announced Inspection of Ash House Women’s Prison

This inspection raised a number of significant concerns – not least, it is wrong to run a female prison at the margins of an overwhelmingly male establishment. The impact on outcomes for the women was, in our view, fundamentally disrespectful.

Inspection 18 – 22 February 2013 by the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority and the Education and Training Inspectorate

Inspectors were concerned that:

– Women continued to be held in a predominantly male prison, which was having a significant and intractable impact upon outcomes they experienced

– Women were marginalised and restricted in their access to facilities and services

–There was evidence of verbal intimidation from male prisoners from time to time

–Women continued to travel with men during escorts and were regularly subject to verbal abuse

– All women were needlessly strip searched on arrival and randomly after visits, which was excessive

– Lessons had not been fully learned from a notable death in custody at Ash House

– Support for prisoners who self-harmed needed to be better

– Care provided to the most vulnerable was too often inadequate.

– Security arrangements were overly restrictive, often instigated to address issues in the YOC, and had a disproportionate consequential impact on women.

– For longer stay residents the environment was claustrophobic and restrictive

– Prisoners disliked the food. The menu cycle did not provide the opportunity to have a balanced diet

– Too many prisoners with poor literacy and numeracy were not getting the support they needed. The paucity of opportunities in this area had a negative affect on equipping women for release and the employment market

– Victims of domestic violence or sex workers were also not effectively identified and virtually no support was offered to them

Chief Inspectors’ Foreword

Ash House is Northern Ireland’s only female prison and holds up to 71 women in one of the units located in Hydebank Wood (HBW) Young Offenders Centre (YOC).

Overall this was a disappointing inspection, in particular because women continued to be held in a predominantly male prison, which was having a significant and intractable impact upon outcomes they experienced. Women were reasonably well cared for but they were inevitably marginalised and restricted in their access to facilities and services. There was also evidence of verbal intimidation from male prisoners from time to time. Only the long-promised closure and replacement of Ash House would resolve the problems we saw. Recent instability in the management team had also contributed to the problems we highlight, and there was a clear gap evident in leadership and direction.

Women continued to travel with men during escorts and were regularly subject to verbal abuse. Most prisoners reported feeling safe, but too many felt victimised by staff. All women were needlessly strip searched on arrival and randomly after visits, which was excessive. Low level anti-social behaviour was challenged but more needed to be done to deal with the understandable tensions of communal living in such a confined and restricted environment. Lessons had not been fully learned from a notable death in custody at Ash House, and care provided to the most vulnerable was too often inadequate.

Many security arrangements were overly restrictive, often instigated to address issues in the YOC, and had a disproportionate consequential impact on women. Adjudications were well managed and segregation was not used. Use of force was not high but governance and accountability needed to be better. Strategic management of substance misuse and testing arrangements did not provide reassurance that the prison was on top of what was perceived to be a drug problem. Services to support substance misusers were under-developed.

Ash House was clean and physical conditions were mostly good. But for longer stay residents the environment was claustrophobic and restrictive. Staff-prisoner relationships were generally good too, although the promotion and monitoring of equality and diversity were weak. Faith provision was valued by prisoners, and health care had improved but still had a way to go to provide good outcomes in all areas. Provision of mental health services had also improved, although support for prisoners who self-harmed needed to be better. Prisoners disliked the food. The menu cycle did not provide the opportunity to have a balanced diet and there were too few opportunities for self-catering.

Purposeful activity provision was very poor and had got worse, from an already very low base seen at the last inspection. It was worse for the women prisoners than the men held in HBW. Time out of cell and outside exercise were too often curtailed for spurious reasons. There were insufficient activity places for the population, and what they had was poorly used. The quality of what was delivered was also mixed and too much lacked challenge, or was poorly taught. Vocational training opportunities were very limited. Too many prisoners with poor literacy and numeracy were not getting the support they needed. The paucity of opportunities in this area had a negative affect on equipping women for release and the employment market. The library and gym, in contrast, offered a positive experience and were well used.

Strategic management of resettlement had improved but the needs of the prisoners were not well enough understood to ensure provision fully met need. Offender management arrangements were well developed and all prisoners, including those on committal, were seen by an offender supervisor. Engagement with external public protection structures had improved, although internal communication processes needed to be better, as did support for indeterminate sentence prisoners. Provision across the reducing reoffending pathways was adequate, although impeded by the poor purposeful activity provision, which limited achievement of some sentence planning targets. Victims of domestic violence or sex workers were also not effectively identified and virtually no support was offered to them, which again limited the effectiveness of interventions.
This inspection raised a number of significant concerns – not least, it is wrong to run a female prison at the margins of an overwhelmingly male establishment. The impact on outcomes for the women was, in our view, fundamentally disrespectful. The prison was safe but little was done to equip women with meaningful skills, and preparation for release and resettlement needed to be a lot sharper. Management and many staff appeared confused about the future direction of the prison and its core purpose. In our view, there needed to be a radical rethink of the approach to the imprisonment of women in Northern Ireland.

Brendan McGuigan Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice

Nick Hardwick Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons
Northern Ireland October 2013

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About truelabour

Investigative Journalist/Researcher for major media. Exposing the truth and police corruption with in UK police service.Certain forces say their motto is Honesty & Integrity One must ask is it lip service or genuinely meant. CO-OP Labour Party member questioning is the party standing for working class of Britain. Trade Union Activist & promoting diversity,community cohesion within multicultural Britain. Anti fascist speaks out against all foams of discrimination.
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