A prison which specialised in people convicted of violent crimes has been “thrown into chaos” by a policy change introduced by Dominic Raab’s Ministry of Justice to cope with a national rise in inmate numbers, an official watchdog has found.
HMP Aylesbury was “suddenly and without sufficient consultation, notice or support” changed into a category C training prison in October, the chief inspector of prisons said.
With rising numbers of prisoners needing accommodation elsewhere in the prison’s estate, hundreds of category C, or low risk, offenders, have been brought into the jail. About 23% of the prison population remain men aged 18-21 convicted of violent crimes and serving long sentences.
The change comes as the government prepares for the overall prison population to rise from 84,000 to 94,000 by March 2025.
Pressure on the prison estate has led to police cells being readied for prisoners. Last week, the MoJ began rolling out 1,000 rapid deployment cells across the prison estate to boost jail capacity.
Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, said Aylesbury had been struggling with its existing role but was now a “chaotic” prison, which was releasing prisoners with “little or no work” to reduce their risk of committing crimes again.
“Challenges have been compounded by this sudden and chaotic re-designation to a category C training jail coupled with extreme staffing problems.
“The prison needs significant and immediate support from the Prison Service to mitigate the level of risk it presents not only for prisoners held there but also for the community into which high-risk offenders are being released with little to no work to reduce their risk of reoffending,” he said.
Inspectors in November and December found a shortage of staff in all grades and disciplines at Aylesbury. This included access to healthcare, time out of cell, education, skills and work and rehabilitation services.
In healthcare the situation was so dire that the Prison Service was unable to send prisoners over the age of 40 to because they could not be safely cared for in the jail, the report said.
Nearly 40% of prisoners were unemployed and had less than an hour out of their cells a day while many prisoners told inspectors they were unable to shower every day.
Those in employment, meanwhile, were frequently unable to benefit from this because of staff shortages, or broken equipment.
A MoJ spokesperson said: “We are investing £155m more every year into the probation service. As the report notes, we are also making real progress in providing stable accommodation to vulnerable prison leavers.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This report reveals why growing the prison population with little thought for the consequences creates more problems for everyone.
“An understaffed prison which has failed repeatedly to help young adults move on from crime has now been placed under even greater pressure because the government is resorting to panic measures to respond to rising numbers. The result has been disastrous, with little or no support to prepare people for safe release.”
In another report released on Tuesday, HM Inspectorate of Probation found that domestic abuse checks were completed in just under half of the cases examined.
The report, which examined 97 cases of people released on licence in depth for up to nine months after their release, also found that:
Only four out of every 10 prisoners went into settled accommodation on release from custody.
Just 8% of those available for work went into employment.
Recall rates were high, with 30% on average being returned to custody – four in 10 of these were within 28 days of being released.
There is an 30% shortfall of full-time employed probation officers in post against the required staffing level of 6,160.
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “It’s absurd to be skimping on the services that help released prisoners to stop committing crime and to stay out of gaol. But that’s exactly what the government is doing. Endless reorganisations and under-resourcing have undermined that process, and put the public at avoidable risk.”
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We have already taken decisive action to address the concerns raised in this report, including bolstering frontline staff and increasing access to education and work for prisoners.
“As the public would rightly expect, we’re also working with others across the criminal justice system and making sure the prison estate is being used effectively while we push ahead with delivering the biggest expansion of prison places in a century.”