Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
MONDAY 15 MARCH 2004
Q340 Chairman: If we may turn to
overcrowding and "churn", in your written evidence you
told us that there is no firm evidence of a correlation between
overcrowding and suicides in prisons. Has that hypothesis been
Mr Wheatley: We certainly looked
at whether we can link suicide rates with different rates of overcrowding.
I go back a long way in the service, having spent well over 30
years in it, when we had much higher rates of overcrowding than
we do now and everybody was three to a cell. In the local prison
that I worked in the suicide rate was rather lower, although it
was inhumane in lots of other ways. There are some protective
consequences of overcrowding. If you are facing severe doubts
about whether you can survive prison, "Is this something
I can do?", actually having somebody with you and they are
reasonably supportive as a friend, think it is their job to support
you as a fellow prisoner, can be protective. It can also make
it difficult to commit suicide if there is somebody else present
who will intervene. I do not want to suggest, of course, that
more overcrowding is the answer. The big problem for us is sheer
numbers. What we tend to call "churn" (which I do not
much like as a term because it suggests that people do not count),
the fact that we have large numbers of prisoners arriving in reception,
very often late in an evening, together, does not help individual
risk assessment of prisoners. The fact that we have got to clear
the prison the next day to make room for another large group arriving
and that those who can be moved have to be moved again does not
help us to concentrate on people who need additional support.
The fact that when we are working under great pressure we will
be moving people well away from their home area, so we could probably
also damage their ability to have visits, is also not a protective
factor. That need to move people, to use every place we have,
even if it is in the wrong part of the country, to make maximum
use of our accommodation and to move large numbers, does make
it more difficult for us to fully implement the policy we have.
I know that puts staff and prisoners under pressure as we try
and cope with that pressure. It is that rather than the individual
fact that we have got two prisoners in a cell that causes problems.
Q341 Chairman: If that is the rationale
for the "churn", that it is just a question of moving
people around for no good reason, to what degree do you think
it compromises your service's ability to provide a safe regime
Mr Wheatley: If we are working
at maximum stretchand we are not moving people casually;
we are moving people to make use of every available place, so
we are running up to about 99% use of what we think is the available
capacity, taking account of the margins that we allow for cell
accommodation we cannot use because the wrong sorts of prisoners
have arrived (there are not enough women or not enough juveniles)it
does make it difficult to individually risk assess prisoners to
the extent one should and intervene, particularly in busy receptions,
and staff do feel under more pressure because instead of unlocking
a landing with seven or eight new prisoners on it you are unlocking
a landing with 20 new prisoners on it. In those circumstances
concentrating on the individual becomes more difficult.
Chairman: When the Chief Inspector of
Prisons visited us recently she raised the rather disturbing policy
which she described as "sale or return", and Lord Campbell
is going to ask you about that.
Q342 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Thank
you for answering the previous questions. There is one thing which
worries a lot of us, which is the evidence of Anne Owers. She
told us about the "sale or return" prisoners. You know
what she was talking about.
Mr Wheatley: Yes. It is not an
overt policy of ours.
Q343 Lord Campbell of Alloway: I
am trying to find out, to save time, if the expression is understood
Mr Wheatley: I understand what
it means, yes.
Q344 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Amongst
those who have gone from one prison to the next and then back
again and then perhaps to another prison, is there any particular
record of self-harm or suicide? Is there any special record kept?
Mr Wheatley: There is no special
record as prisoners are transferred, and they are transferred
for a variety of reasons.
Q345 Lord Campbell of Alloway: For
example, it is semi-medical. They have all been sectioned once.
Mr Wheatley: They have not normally
been sectioned, no.
Q346 Lord Campbell of Alloway: According
to Anne Owers, they have first been sectioned.
Mr Wheatley: No.
Q347 Lord Campbell of Alloway: May
I tell you what she said and then you can tell me if it is wrong?
First she said that they are sectioned in one prison and because
they have been sectioned they are then sent off to another prison,
and when they get to that prison they behave in such a manner
that the doctors there say they are violent and therefore cannot
be treated, and therefore they are returned. I think I have put
accurately the essence of what Anne Owers was saying. She said
they were "sale or return". There is a medical record
of their section, is there not?
Mr Wheatley: That is not what
I recognise by "sale or return". What I know happens,
and I do not in any way want to fudge what happens, is that prisoners,
actually mainly outside the local prison system, having been allocated
into training prisons will run into difficulties in the training
prisons, which means that they are not settling. It may be that
they are doing simple things like refusing to work, it may be
that they have been engaging in indiscipline, abuse of
staff, sometimes assaults on staff, and they
therefore end up in the segregation unit, segregated from other
prisonerssegregated, not sectioned. They are not there
because they are a mental health problem. In fact, if they were
a mental health problem we should be intervening differently.
Q348 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Could
I interrupt? We are not understanding one another. There are prisoners
who are sectioned under the Mental Health Act; right?
Mr Wheatley: If prisoners are
sectioned under the Mental Health Act they are not transferred
other than to a mental health hospital.
Q349 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Can
we deal with it in stages? There are prisoners who are sectioned
under the Mental Health Act?
Mr Wheatley: Yes.
Q350 Lord Campbell of Alloway: That
is obviously recorded somewhere.
Mr Wheatley: Yes.
Q351 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Having
been sectioned, they are sent to another prison.
Mr Wheatley: That is unusual and
not anything that I know as a normal thing to happen. When somebody
is sectioned and awaiting allocation to a psychiatric hospital,
they are kept in the place where they have been sectioned normally
unless there is some overriding reason why not.
Q352 Lord Campbell of Alloway: And
they get to the hospital. When they get to the hospital the doctors
there say, "They are so violent that we cannot keep them".
Mr Wheatley: I have certainly
seen that happen.
Q353 Lord Campbell of Alloway: That
Mr Wheatley: Yes, and it happens
normally with prisoners who have got a diagnosis of personality
disorder where the hospital must only keep them under the Mental
Health Act, which I am not an expert on, if they have got to be
treated and the hospital may decide this person is not treatable.
At that point they are returned to us.
Q354 Lord Campbell of Alloway: On
the one where the hospital says they are not treatable, of course
they have a mental disability or they would not be there and they
would not have been sectioned, but the hospital then says, "We
cannot treat them", for this reason or that reason. Then
they are moved, are they not, if they cannot stay in the hospital?
Mr Wheatley: Yes.
Q355 Lord Campbell of Alloway: So
they are moved from the hospital somewhere else, to another prison?
Mr Wheatley: They will be returned
to the prison, normally the one that sent them there.
Q356 Lord Campbell of Alloway: Those
are the people that some of us are concerned about. What sort
of records have you got of those people committing suicide or
none? I am not criticising you. If there is none, there is none.
Mr Wheatley: Certainly it has
never been drawn to my attention, as somebody who has spent a
long time looking at the figures, that this is a particular group
at risk of suicide, though there is a small number of prisoners
who, in a variety of ways, come back from hospital. Some of those
who go out into psychiatric hospitals come back having been treated
and with their psychiatric illness under control, and they are
sent back to us on those grounds because they have been in the
hospital during a particularly florid outburst. Some are sent
back, as you say, normally because their personality disorders
are not treatable, but I have no evidence that that group are
at particular risk of committing suicide. That is not "sale
Q357 Lord Bowness: Chairman, could
I just follow Lord Campbell's question? Leaving aside the sectioned
point, is it fair to say that prisoners who are subject to the
"sale or return" procedures tend to be those who may
have mental health problems or who are vulnerable in some other
way or difficult in some other way?
Mr Wheatley: A number of those
who do not settle in prison are probably capable of having a diagnosis
of personality disorder; in other words, their very misbehaviour
may be linked to a personality disorder that is not treatable,
which means that they cannot got to a psychiatric hospital, and
we in the Prison Service have to do our best to contain them safely
to them and safely to other prisoners and staff. They will occasionally
be moved from prison to prison. We have found out by doing that
(this is not just a casual system) for prisoners who have got
into difficulty in one prison if we can change the environment
and the circumstances and try them again, not put them straight
into the segregation unit, that they can settle elsewhere. We
do get some prisoners to settle down after that process by moving
people, often because they have got themselves in binds with people,
perhaps because they are not easy to live with. As a system it
can work to settle people as we try to find an environment in
which they can settle, but they are a problematic group who are
not treatable and have what could be described as a personality
disorder and can be very difficult prisoners perhaps as a result
Q358 Baroness Prashar: I want to
ask two questions, one in relation to overcrowding and another
one about movement of staff. It has been announced that two women's
prisons, Edmonton and Winchester, are going to be decamped in
order to accommodate men because of overcrowding. What arrangements
are you going to put in place to make sure that the women are
moved to prisons near to their home, that they are properly risk
assessed when they get to these prisons and that they continue
to have the treatment that they were getting at Winchester and
Mr Wheatley: You are right. We
are proposing to re-role as the new women's prison opens at Bronzefield,
which is a site that was the old Ashford Remand Centre, which
comes on stream in June and gives us a lot more places for women.
We are closing Winchester initially and we expect to close the
other one at High Point North. The regime that has been provided
at Bronzefield under the new PFI contract is a good regime. It
has not been delivered yet so we cannot say how it has delivered,
but we have contracted for what looks like a full regime with
a proper provision of regime facilities, rather better than some
of the places we have been using, like High Point North, which
has got a very inadequate accommodation, and the women's block
at Winchester is also a piece of late sixties/early seventies
build and design and not the best of buildings. It is good quality
stuff with a good quality regime. We are not able to test it yet
because it has not opened. We are doing that so that we manage
our margins and produce the extra places that we have been asked
to produce by running with less than 2,000 empty places, because
otherwise what we have is not enough women to fill the women's
accommodation, so we have vacancies in the women's estate while
we are probably overcrowding men more and would probably be going
out into police cells if we did not do this. As we move women
to Bronzefield some people will be better off in terms of being
near to home. If they come from within the London area, particularly
the west London area, they will be better off, and some will be
worse off. If they come from the other side of Winchester they
will be worse off. That is a consequence of the move. I cannot
say that with every prisoner they will get the same treatment
that they were having at Winchester. They may get better treatment
in some cases, they may not get exactly the same as they were
getting. We are satisfied that we are opening what should be a
very good prison with proper provision, but it will be disruptive.
We are doing it to keep the margins of unused accommodation as
tight as we can as we operate something like a super efficient
hotel chain that never has a bed out of use.
Q359 Baroness Prashar: Will you have
proper reception and risk assessment as they come in?
Mr Wheatley: Yes. They will go
through the full assessment process at Bronzefield which is built
into Bronzefield and which is good quality provisioning giving
good quality reception assessment. I do not want to fudge the
fact that it will be disruptive for many of the women who have
established ways of operating and know the staff that they are
with at the moment, and in some cases will not gain in terms of
closeness to home.