Government stands firm in its denial of High Down prison 'crisis'

Sutton Guardian: The Government has again denied that High Down prison is in crisis The Government has again denied that High Down prison is in crisis

The Government is standing firm in its denial that High Down prison is in crisis - despite more inmates’ relatives and ex-officers insisting that this is far from the truth.

In a bid to prove that the situation in the prison on the border between Banstead and Sutton, is normal the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) MoJ has told the Epsom Guardian that the prison governor is happy for the newspaper to come into the prison - an invitation we will take up as soon as the prison gives us a date.

In last Thursday's Epsom Guardian, the MoJ denied information passed to this newspaper by an anonymous source which claimed that the prison is keeping prisoners locked in their cells and out of rehabilitative educational courses because there are not enough staff to supervise them. 

Following the article, a number of relatives and two ex-officers from High Down got in touch claiming that the original allegations are all true. 

Anonymous relatives said the inmates are being treated worse than dogs, being kept in their cells for all bar 20 minutes a day, being let outside for fresh air twice in weeks, and sometimes being served cold food in their cells.  They said this has provoked violence from prisoners and, in turn, officers.

An ex-officer said those working at the prison believe it is "a  scary situation", with a 1:35 to 40 prisoner to officer ratio.  

An ex-officer also said he had first-hand experience of being told to falsify regime monitoring reports to show prisoners have been let out of their cells for an appropriate amount of time when they had not.

Various other concerns were also raised.

In a statement, the MoJ said: "There is simply no crisis at High Down.  In fact, the prison is improving across a number of areas, including education provision, and has seen the number of violent incidents fall. 

"We are reforming and modernising the prison estate to ensure best value for the taxpayer while also providing safe and secure prisons that deliver effective rehabilitation.

"Staffing levels remain appropriate to run a safe and efficient prison and are in line with national guidelines."

A spokeswoman said that it is "simply not true" that prisoners are only let out of their cells for 20 minutes a day and 10 minutes at the weekend.

She said: "Prisoners who engage in work and education will be out of the cells for between eight and 10 hours a day. 

"For those that do not engage, they are still out of their cell for a minimum of 4 hours a day between 8am and 6pm.

"At weekends it is our intention to always run a normalised regime with prisoners having access to all facilities throughout this time.

"However, as a minimum we try to ensure that prisoners are let out of cells for a half a day on Saturdays and half a day on Sundays, unless the time is curtailed because of an operational emergency."

The spokeswoman said it is not true that inmates in some cell blocks are reacting violently to being kept locked in their cells and that, in turn, prison officers have been violent towards them.

She said: "There has been a consistent reduction in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner violent incidents at High Down and there has also been a reduction in assaults on staff since January 2013. 

"There have also been recognised improvements in prisoner safety.

"There has only been one recorded serious incident at the prison since September."

She said the number of violent incidents recorded at the prison were 21 in September, 9 in October, 10 in November, 10 in December and 17 in January.  One prison officer was suspended in January pending the outcome of a police investigation.

Responding to concerns that in two-to-three weeks prisoners had only been outside twice in the fresh air for brief periods of time, it said: "The months of severe weather have meant that there have been times when outdoor exercise has been limited - prisoners are not forced to go outside, it is voluntary. 

"However, the prison meets the national guidelines of 30 minutes-a-day outdoor exercise wherever possible."

It said that High Down is "recognised as a high-performing prison in providing education to prisoners" when told of concerns that prisoners had not been attending educational classes, the prison’s library or gyms because there is not enough staff.

The MoJ said: "Prisoner classroom attendance and completion of qualifications is improving.

"In the past three months, education classes have been at three-quarters capacity or more.  In November - 81 per cent, in December - 78 per cent, in January - 74 per cent.

"These figures put High Down in the top two performing prisons in London over the past three months.

"We prioritise gym and library resources to those prisoners who actively engage in the education and work regimes."

A MoJ spokeswoman said it was true that prisoners ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in their cells: "Prisoners do eat meals in their cells and this is standard practice for prisons across the country.

"There are, of course, supervisors in the kitchen at all times prisoners are there - otherwise meals would not be able to be cooked and provided."

When informed that some prisoners are apparently washing their clothes in buckets in their cells after a washing machine broke, and that showers are few and far between as there are not enough officers to supervise the washrooms, the MOJ said: "One washing machine has broken down in prison house block three and this is currently being replaced.

"There is no evidence of prisoners washing clothes in buckets and it is not necessary.  However, it would be up to the individual if they chose to do that.  

"There are 18 washing machines located in house blocks, as well as a separate industrial size laundry that provides services to High Down prisoners and washes their clothes on a weekly basis.

"Prison officers do not supervise washrooms as a matter of policy and not because of staffing cuts.

"Every prisoner is given the opportunity to shower every day.  If a prisoner chooses not to use the facility, that is their choice. Only an urgent operational requirement would prevent the washrooms being opened."  

Responding to concerns that new prisoners are not receiving inductions because of a lack of staff and requests to see doctors and dentists are ignored, the MoJ said: "High Down has a thorough induction process.

"Occasionally a prisoner does not receive the full induction straight away and the prison will fill in the gaps as soon possible. 

"This could be due to a number of reasons including the prisoner’s non-engagement with the process or medical reasons for example.

"Prisoners utilise health services in a way that they do not in the community.  There has been no increase in the number of complaints about access to doctors and dentists.

"There is a 16-week wait to see a dentist for a routine appointment in the prison and no delay in seeing a doctor."

When asked about claims that no responses are given by staff when prisoners make an application of a complaint, a spokeswoman for the MoJ said: "There were issues with the application and complaints system, which is why the prison commissioned an independent review.

"It is now in the process of implementing the recommendations from the report.  This has already seen a reduction in the complaints about the system."

Responding to concerns that High Down is "rife with drugs", the MoJ said: "Cells are searched on a frequent and regular basis and immediately where intelligence requires.

"The drug rate at High Down, 8.65 per cent, is significantly lower than the 11.50 per cent national guideline."

The MoJ said it had no evidence to support claims that an ex-officer at High Down had first-hand experience of being told to falsify regime monitoring reports to show that prisoners have been let out of their cells for an appropriate.

It said: "Managers have never instructed staff to falsify any report. 

"The prison encourages the Epsom Guardian to share any evidence and the matter will be investigated in full."

When asked about the concerns to do with staff shortages and claims that the prison officer to prisoner ratio is 1:34 to 40, a spokeswoman for the MoJ said: "There are appropriate levels of staffing at the prison at all times.

"The current ratio is 30 prisoners to every one prison officer, which is exactly in line with national guidelines.

"The prison is safe and well-run and levels of violence are dropping.

"There are currently 25 officer vacancies and only two supervising officer vacancies and the prison is currently recruiting.

"These vacancies occurred through natural staffing turnover, i.e., retirement and resignation. They did not occur through redundancy.

"Since a number of prison officers separately took voluntary early departure in September, 13 staff have been promoted."

The spokeswoman said it is "simply untrue" that prisoners at High Down have been told by prison officers that they are being kept locked in their cells because there is not enough staff to supervise them: "The prison encourages the Epsom Guardian to share any evidence."

She also denied as untrue claims that, three weeks ago, a relative was told by the prison’s visitors’ centre that 200 extra prisoners had arrived and there were not enough staff to manage this: "The prison was asked to take an extra 60 prisoners and therefore a further 10 staff were deployed to High Down."

Responding to claims that relatives are left upset and angry on visit days because they can left waiting for up to half an hour before inmates arrive, only to be told, after 30 minutes with them that the visit is finished, a spokeswoman said: "The visitor centre is open between 2pm and 4.30pm, which is an hour and a half longer than the minimum national guidelines.

"No visitor has their visit curtailed after 30 minutes unless there is a specific operational reason - it is right that in a prison operational or security issues must take precedence."

If you have contacts in High Down, do you know what is really going on inside the prison? Contact Hardeep Matharu on hmatharu@london.newsquest.co.uk or call 020 8722 6346.

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