Joint Committee On Human Rights Sixth Report

74. Memorandum from The Prison Reform Trust


  1.  The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) is an independent charity that works to create a just, effective and humane penal system. We inquire into the system, inform prisoners, staff and the wider public and seek to influence government towards reform. PRT provides the secretariat to the Parliamentary All Party Group on Penal Affairs. Each year we publish a number of reports on all aspects of prison life that receive widespread media attention, inform ministers and officials and lead to changes in policy and practice. Our expertise and experience is recognised by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales. About 4,000 prisoners and their families contact our advice and information service each year. We jointly produce a range of prisoners' information booklets with the Prison Service.

  2.  Following our publication in 2000 of A Hard Act to Follow which examined implementations of the Human Rights Act (HRA) for prisoners and the Prison Service, PRT has continued to monitor human rights observance in prisons. We are also campaigning for voting rights for prisoners.


  1.  Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights Act states that "Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law". Public authorities, including the Prison Service, must not cause the death of any person. They also have a positive obligation to protect the right to life of people in their care and to hold an effective investigation into suspicious deaths and to enforce the law.

  2.  In 2002 there were 94 suicides in prisons in England and Wales, a rise of 29 per cent on the previous year (Prison Service data). In one week alone there were eight suicides, five of them within 24 hours (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report 2001-02). In all, 20 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women coming into custody say they have previously attempted suicide (Prison Service data). Over 50 prisoners commit suicide shortly after release each year (Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners, Social Exclusion Unit, July 2002). The Home Office is due to introduce a system for independent investigation into deaths in prison custody.

  3.  The Prison Service has invested great efforts to improve safety in prisons. It conducted a review of suicide and self harm in February 2001. It has also introduced a new order that eliminated the use of "strip cells" for prisoners identified at risk of suicide or self-harm. The practice had been widely recognised as degrading and according to Prison Service Instruction 27/2000 was "likely to be challenged under article 3 of the ECHR". But in her annual report 2001-02 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has reported that in some prisons this order is not being complied with.

  4.  The prison population has risen exponentially over the past year. It currently stands at about 70,000. Over the last 10 years the numbers have risen by 75 per cent. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report 2001-02 states: "the debilitating and chilling effect of prison overcrowding" is threatening safety.

  5.  A Prison Reform Trust report, Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story (September 2002), documents how overcrowding has led to an increase in suicides and self-harm. It is based on information from three quarters of the 140 Boards of Visitors (BoV), the independent watchdogs appointed by the Home Office in England and Wales. Overall 77 per cent said they were concerned about the adverse affect prison overcrowding was having on safety.

  6.  The BoV at Woodhill reported: "We are concerned that they (staff) are not able to offer the appropriate quality of assessment or evaluation of needs for prisoners' safety and care, and indeed may miss early signs of self harm on arrival." The BoV at Huntercombe reported: "On evening duties there are no officers who could provide response to alarm bells." The BoV at Downview, a prison that has recently been re-rolled from a male to a female prison in response to the rapidly rising female population reported: "The prison was simply not ready to take women . . . Very rapidly there were four suicide attempts on C Wing, one of which almost succeeded".

  7.  At the end of October 2002 there were just over 14,000 prisoners sharing cells designed for one inmate (Hansard, 2 December 2002).There is evidence from the Prison Reform Trust report Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story (September 2002) that prisons are not carrying out proper risk assessments for cell sharing. This is also reported in HM Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report 2001-02. It should be noted that the racist murder of the Asian teenager, Zahid Mubarak, by his mentally ill cell mate at Feltham YOI in March 2000 happened following inadequate risk assessment.


  1.  Article 3 of the ECHR states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". The key question here with regard to prisons is at what point do conditions become inhuman and degrading. We note that from unsuccessful challenges under the Act that there appears to be a very high threshold for what constitutes such treatment.

  2.  At the end of October 2002 over 16,000 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation (Hansard, 2 December 2002). This includes prisoners doubling up, those held three to a cell designed for two and any prisoners overcrowded in dormitories and larger cells. As noted above the Prison Reform Trust report Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story (September 2002) found that Boards of Visitors are deeply concerned about the impact of overcrowding resulting in cramped accommodation, more time in cell and the impact on vulnerable prisoners. Emergency action has had to be taken by many prisons. At Winchester the Board of Visitors reports that 60 per cent of cells in the main prison have been doubled up.

  3.  The serious effects of overcrowding should not be under-estimated. The Board of Visitors at Ranby states: "Prisoners must use the toilet in the presence of their cell mate. Also, there is only one chair in each cell, which means that one prisoner must use the toilet as a seat when eating a meal". The BoV at Dartmoor states: "There is no space for either prisoner to exercise or undertake in-cell activity without getting in the other's way . . . Some cell doors do not open because of lack of space . . . None of these points, as far as the Board is concerned, comply with basic needs of `dignity and decency' as being promoted by the Director General. Some issues may even contravene the HRA". (Prison Reform Trust Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story September 2002). One prisoner held in a double cell with two other prisoners who contacted the Prison Reform Trust said that overcrowded living conditions had made him feel "introspective", "feel dirty" and "angry towards cell mates".

  4.  Overcrowding is limiting regime activities. In 2001-02 the Prison Service failed to meet its Key Performance Indicator target of providing 24 hours of purposeful activity per prisoner each week—the Prison Service has met this target just once in the last seven years (Monitoring Prison Regimes: Prison Service Performance Against Key Performance Indicators, Prison Reform Trust, August 2002). Time out of cell remains low in many prisons. At HMP Bullingdon which has one of the worst records on purposeful activity with just 13.8 hours a week, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons recently reported: "In some case, three men shared a double cell, where they could spend 22 hours a day. Association was limited to four times a week, and provided the only opportunity for showers and telephone calls" (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, report of a full unannounced inspection of Bullingdon, January 2003). It should also be noted that the Prison Service no longer guarantees time in fresh air for prisoners.

  5.  The Prison Service is failing to provide adequate conditions in many prisons. Despite the formal abolition of "slopping out" in 1996, not all cells have integral sanitation. The Prison Reform Trust has learned of cases in two prisons where buckets have been placed in cells on wings without integral sanitation. The Scottish Prison Service has yet to end this inhuman and degrading practice and should expect to be challenged under the HRA.

  6.  Overcrowding is having a particularly negative impact on some female prisons. There are now more than 4,000 women in prison, an increase of more than 170 per cent in the last 10 years. At Eastwood Park, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has reported that: "it is an establishment in crisis, unable to provide a safe, decent and constructive environment for many of the women and girls within it" (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report 2001-02).

  7.  The rising prison population and the shortage of accommodation has also led to prisoners being inappropriately held within prisons, for example being held in isolation in segregation units. Elmley Board of Visitors reports: "Prisoners are continually being held in the segregation units . . . Normally these prisoners are only held inappropriately for one night. However . . . first nighters have been held in segregation rather than in cells especially allocated for first nighters. I personally have seen some very inadequate first nighters held in segregation" (Prison Reform Trust Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story, September 2002).

  8.  The situation for vulnerable prisoners, particularly the mentally ill, continues to be of great concern. The Office of National Statistics has found that over 70 per cent of prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders (Psychiatric Morbidity among Prisoners in England and Wales ONS 1998). In her annual report the Chief Inspector of Prisons states: "severe mentally ill prisoners are being inappropriately held in healthcare centres where they are a danger to themselves, other prisoners and staff . . . The practice of juggling those prisoners between healthcare and the segregation unit, in order to provide respite or healthcare staff continued in some prisons" (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report 2001-02). The Social Exclusion Unit has reported that "many prisoners do not receive treatment that matches their needs" and that prisoners are twice as likely to be refused treatment for mental health problems inside prison than outside (Re-offending by ex-Prisoners, SEU, July 2002). Although the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture has recommended that a doctor qualified in psychiatry be attached to the health service of each prison (Council of Europe 2000), most prisoners with mental health problems are attended to by doctors lacking such qualifications.

  9.  Unless the Prison Service improves the conditions in our worst prisons, especially for vulnerable mentally ill prisoners, violations of Article 3 may be found.


  1.  Article 8 of the ECHR states: "Everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life, home and correspondence". This prevents public authorities from interfering disproportionately in a person's private life. The issue of written correspondence has come up before the European Court of Human Rights on many occasions and has led to the amendments to the Prison Rules and to the administrative guidance to Governors.

  2.  Other areas that may be challenged under article 8 include restrictions on visits, policies on searching cells in the absence of the prisoner, distance from home and conjugal visits. According to the latest figures 12,500 prisoners are held over 100 miles from their homes (Home Office, October 2002), making visits impossible for some people and undermining family life. This is one of the major reasons why prisoners contact the Prison Reform Trust. During the past 12 months many of the approximately 2,000 prisoners who have contacted PRT for advice and information have expressed concern about distance from home and effects on visiting. Overcrowding makes the situation worse. Prisoners are often being transferred at short notice to less crowded prisons. The Board of Visitors at Holme House reports: "Some prisoners stated they had no idea where they were going until they stepped out of the van to find they were in another part of the country. Prisoner dissatisfaction with not being located nearer to families . . . Families not knowing which prison he has been taken to" (Prison Reform Trust Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story, September 2002).


  1.  Article 14 of the ECHR guarantees the equal rights of all citizens to the rights set out in the Convention regardless of "any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with national minority, property, birth or other status". Areas that may be challenged under Article 14 include race relations, including the treatment of foreign nationals and immigration detainees, and the treatment of disabled prisoners.

  2.  In England and Wales over 15,000 prisoners—22 per cent of the prison population—are from a minority ethnic group. Afro-Caribbean's alone account for 15 per cent of the total number of prisoners. They are more likely to be found guilty of disciplinary offences and less likely to have access to constructive activities. Minority ethnic staff are under-represented in the Prison Service, especially at senior and operational levels. Just one prison governor is from a minority ethnic group (Prison Service data). Many prisons have an enormous mismatch between the ethnicity of staff and prisoners.

  3.  Following the death of an Asian teenager, Zahid Mubarak, at Feltham Young Offenders Institution in March 2000 and allegations made at other prisons the Prison Service asked the Commission for Racial Equality to conduct an inquiry into racism at Feltham, HMP Brixton, HMP Parc Prison and the Prison Service's general policies on racism. The Director General of the Prison Service publicly stated that the Prison Service is institutionally racist. The CRE said its inquiry would be as influential in the prison service as the Stephen Lawrence inquiry has proved for the police. But a report is yet to be published and the Director General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, has said the failure to complete the investigation has "cast a blight" over attempts to tackle racism in prisons (Guardian, 15 June 2002)

  4.  There are also concerns about the treatment of disabled prisoners. The Prison Reform Trust has been contacted by disabled prisoners who have complained about being put in prisons that lack appropriate facilities. In some cases they have been unable to secure transfers to open prisons because they are not fit for work and have had to remain in prisons with fewer facilities. Although a member of staff is designated to undertake the role of disability relations officer, duties and times are not ring fenced and often eroded.


  1.  The Prison Service has a poor record of safeguarding prisoners' rights. British prisoners have been the largest single group to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights and developments in prisoners' rights have largely come from the courts and not from Government or Parliament. Since the Human Rights Act became law, the Prison Service has been forced into a number of embarrassing policy changes in response to HRA violations. The Prison Service has consistently ignored warnings that many of its policies and procedures violate human rights law. There is little expertise of human rights law within the Prison Service and a human rights culture is not embedded in prisons.

  2.  The establishment of a Human Rights Commission could play a valuable role in ensuring that prisoners' rights issues are widely considered. A commission could provide advice and training to the Prison Service to bring its policies and procedures within human rights standards; advise Government and Parliament on human rights issues regarding legislation; use litigation where appropriate; advise prisoners who believe their rights have been infringed; conduct formal investigations if necessary; and help develop a human rights culture in prisons.

January 2003

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