Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)



  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 tested?

  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 for prisoners?

  Mr Wheatley: If we are working at maximum stretch—and 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 by you.

  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. Right?

  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 prisoners—segregated, 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 does happen?

  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 or return".

  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 of that.

  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 Edmonton?

  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.

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