Downview is a closed prison for women located in Sutton, Surrey
Inspectors were concerned to find that:
– violence reduction procedures were weak and recording of disciplinary processes and the use of force, strip-clothing and special cells was inadequate;
– more thought needed to be given the most vulnerable women the prison held, such as those with mental health problems;
– too many women identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm were held in segregation without evidence of the exceptional circumstances required to justify it;
– the segregation unit was an entirely inappropriate environment for vulnerable women who needed high levels of clinically-led care
– there were significant deficiencies in offender management and planning processes and too many women came to the prison without the required assessment of their offending risks;
– it was too easy for women to obtain alcohol and support for women who abused alcohol was inadequate
– The prison held 16 women under 21 years old and these young adults were over-represented in some disciplinary processes
– the range of family visits was limited.
– inspectors made 72 recommendations
HMP Downview is a closed women’s training prison with a resettlement function. At the time of this inspection it held 283 women. When we last inspected the prison in a short follow-up inspection in 20 I I it was reeling from the fallout of some serious staff misconduct which had led to a custodial sentence for one person involved. This inspection found that the prison had moved on but lessons had been learnt, and managers now took a much more robust approach to any concerns about staff behaviour.
The most striking feature of the prison was the very good levels of high quality activity the women enjoyed – much better than we usually see in either men or women’s prisons. Few women were left on the wings during the day, activity places were full and busy and women spoke positively about the opportunities on offer in the prison; there were also good opportunities for some women to do paid or voluntary work out in the community. There was the potential to improve this further by offering higher level and more challenging qualifications in some of the education and training activities.
The positive atmosphere this engendered was reinforced throughout the prison by a good quality environment and generally good relationships with staff, which were mostly characterised by mutually high expectations. Arrangements for women’s early days in the prison had improved but more needed to be done to reassure women who felt anxious and lonely at this time. Once settled in the prison, most women told us they felt safe and there was a caring approach to the minority of women who might be victimised by other prisoners or be at risk of self-harm. Drug treatment and measures to restrict the supply of illegal drugs were good; however, it was too easy for women to obtain alcohol and support for women who abused alcohol was inadequate.
Generally good individual relationships meant that most women had their needs identified and met. However, risks were created because this positive culture was not underpinned by sufficiently rigorous processes and poor record keeping – particularly in some critical safety and disciplinary areas. Violence reduction procedures were weak and recording of disciplinary processes and the use of force, strip-clothing and specials cells was inadequate. Staffing levels were stretched and important aspects of the prison, such as the delivery of mail or association time, were sometimes disrupted by staff absences.
Work on diversity had improved but more needed to be done to identify and meet the needs of women with disabilities and older women. The prison held 16 women under 21 years old and these young adults were over-represented in some disciplinary processes. The prison had recognised that this was a group with specific needs and was planning to meet them. At the time of the inspection the prison had just been given notice that the Josephine Butler Unit – a unit of the prison that held young offenders under 18 (which we inspected separately) – was to close. This created an opportunity to use the skills and experience of the staff from the unit to improve provision for young women in the main prison.
More thought needed to be given to the most vulnerable women the prison held. A small number of women accounted for much of the recorded self-harm. Mental and good physical health services were not well integrated and we found insufficient evidence of effective treatment or care planning for women with mental health problems. Too many women identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm were held in segregation without evidence of the exceptional circumstances required to justify it. The segregation unit itself was divided into two parts: one for women segregated for their own protection who were mostly very vulnerable and needed ‘respite’; the other a traditional discipline facility for women serving cellular confinement punishments or segregated for good order and discipline. The regime for both groups required improvement but it was an entirely inappropriate environment for vulnerable women who needed high levels of clinically-led care.
The opportunities women had to develop employability skills and gain experience working outside the prison on temporary licence were aspects of good work to meet women’s practical resettlement needs. The prison held women from a wide geographical area, including a substantial number from Wales, but despite the challenges this posed, most women had effective help in obtaining housing, work or training and health services. The post release support provided by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPt), for women with drug and alcohol problems, was particularly effective and good practice.
However, this generally good resettlement work was undermined by significant deficiencies in the offender management and planning processes necessary to identify and address a woman’s risk of further offending. Far too many women came to the prison without the required assessment of their offending risks (a failure by the sending prisons) and Downview was unable to deal with the resulting large backlogs. This was exacerbated by large caseloads for probation staff and the redeployment of prison staff offender supervisors to other duties.
Work to meet the specific resettlement needs of women also required development. General visits arrangements were reasonable and the independent ‘Stepping Stones’ project – a house just outside the prison that allowed women to spend quality time with their children on temporary licence – was an excellent initiative. However, the children and family issues relevant to women when they first arrived were not identified. The range of family visits was limited and there was little to meet the needs of women with specific circumstances – those who were primary carers, had adult children or who lived too far from their families to receive regular visits, for instance. Supervised, risk-assessed access to some web-based services and would resolve some of these issues and, in any case, a lack of internet access is an increasing significant obstacle to effective resettlement. Other important women-specific resettlement services were also weak. Advice and support for women who had experienced abuse, domestic violence or sex work needed to be strengthened, and what already existed needed to be better coordinated and advertised.
Overall, Downview had significantly improved since our last inspection. Its very good education, training and work opportunities created a positive and purposeful ethos and this, combined with a generally caring attitude by staff, meant that most women were safe and had their needs met. However, some sloppy processes need to be sorted out to avoid unnecessary risks. Other priorities should be working with the Prison Service regionally to address the backlogs in its offender management processes, and improving its support for women whose needs are not typical of the population as a whole – because of their age, disability or family circumstances, for instance, and most particularly, for the small number of very vulnerable women.