A damning new report into High Down prison has revealed a prison "pared to the bone and beyond" where staff cuts have sparked safety fears, undermined rehabilitation, and left prisoners spending very long periods locked in their cells.
The report by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) said: "2013 has been a dreadful year for High Down. The many changes, most outside the control of anyone working within it, have produced an unhappy prison for those that live and work within its confines."
Its findings closely mirror complaints to this newspaper in recent weeks by worried ex-officers at the prison, on the border between Banstead and Sutton, and relatives of prisoners who insist the prison has reached crisis point - claims repeatedly rejected by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
"The sight of empty classrooms is one of the most dispiriting aspects of the prison," according to the report, casting a major question mark over the Government's much vaunted policy of bolstering rehabilitation as a way of driving down reoffending.
This week the Government was attacked on regulations, introduced in November, which prevent people sending books to prisoners.
Epsom’s MP, Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, has insisted that the changes have been brought in to encourage prisoners to use prison libraries or to earn money to buy books. But in the case of High Down, staff shortages have resulted in prisoners being kept in their cells, unable to access the library.
The report, published last Tuesday, March 18, asked: "Has the minister truly taken on board the effects that these cuts will inevitably make on the avowed policy of reducing reoffending?"
And the IMB made clear that this is a national state-of-affairs in prisons across the country because "no one outside the prison service can understand quite what these changes have meant".
Asked to respond to the report and what is happening inside the prison, Mr Grayling once again refused to comment.
But the ex-prisons minister and Banstead MP, Crispin Blunt, said he was so concerned that he intends to go into the prison as soon as he can to find out what is happening.
Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell, and Secretary of State for Justice
Last week the MoJ was still insisting there was nothing wrong: "There is simply no crisis at High Down. The prison is improving across a number of areas, including education provision, and has seen the number of violent incidents fall.
"Staffing levels remain appropriate to run a safe and efficient prison and are in line with national guidelines."
But the IMB, which visited the prison 791 times between December 2012 and November 2013, paints a very different picture.
It said staff cuts and cost-cutting measures by way of bench-marking meant: "There was no longer time to interact with prisoners. Men spent longer locked up. Staff worried about their safety. Morale plummeted. More than ever the system was dependent on a degree of consensus... It feels pared to the bone and beyond."
Voluntary redundancy, together with factors such as long-term sickness, led to a shortfall of 13 officers.
In September, the prison was running with 29 officers below complement.
Complaints doubled in November to 111 compared to 58 in November 2012.
The report said: "The Board heard constant complaints from officers and prisoners about the effects on daily routine. Officers started to talk about feeling unsafe with new staffing levels of five officers and one senior officer per house block of 181 prisoners."
It added: "Prisoners were not being unlocked in time to get to work in the kitchen, there was often insufficient time for domestic activities such as showers and phone-calls, library visits fell off, gym practically ceased, exercise and association were insufficient and unpredictable."
From April 2013, "cross-deployment" became an issue as staff numbers decreased. This led to officers with no experience of the Segregation wing of the prison being expected to suddenly work there without specific training, and resulted in a fall in the number of random and targeted drug tests carried out.
It also resulted in confusion in the visitors’ centre. The IMB said that one visitor said she phoned 297 times in four days to book a visit.
With regards to medical appointments, the report said: "The IMB deplores the situation." This is because staff shortages often meant hospital appointments had to be cancelled as there were no staff to escort prisoners.
The IMB found that visits to the library greatly reduced and "very little" gym time was available after September: "A crying shame and a cause of much complaint to the IMB."
Dirty shower areas were noted in the report, with rubbish being ejected through cell windows to communal areas. The IMB also found the presence of mice in the visits hall and tea bar and that laundry machinery was constantly breaking down.
Despite this, the report said there were many examples of good and dedicated work by prison officers and managers and it singled out the prison’s "high visibility" governor, Ian Bickers - who only took over last January - for praise for holding his nerve and "steering High Down through these difficult times".
It also said: "The board notes that High Down still makes every attempt to treat prisoners humanely and fairly."
High Down prison, in High Down Lane, opened in 1992
Following the report's publication, the IMB said: "There is much magnificent work done within the prison, such as help for people with drug-related problems, workshops to teach skills like brick-laying, education classes and the Clink restaurant, which is open to the public and gives prisoners the opportunity to gain experience in both cooking and serving.
"However, the swingeing cuts have meant that officers have much less time to spend getting to know prisoners, who often have to spend many hours a day 'banged up' in their cells.
"Although the IMB is often impressed by the work that officers and other staff do at High Down, the potential for rehabilitation is undermined by low staff numbers."
Responding to the report, the MoJ issued a brief statement saying: "As the IMB points out, there is much magnificent work being done within High Down during a period of significant change.
"The prison has been improving across a number of areas - including education provision and a fall in violent incidents - and next month they will receive additional members of staff to allow an improved regime to be offered.
"This report will now be considered fully by Ministers, who will respond in due course."
It added: "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.
"By creating a network of resettlement prisons - including High Down - as part of our Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, we are providing a continuous rehabilitative service throughout custody and into the community to help tackle our stubbornly high reoffending rates."
Crispin Blunt, ex-prisons minister and MP for Banstead
Mr Blunt said: "I am immensely concerned about the IMB report. The description of how 2013 was a dreadful year for High Down is profoundly disappointing and worrying.
"The change in policy following my time as Prisons Minister around priorities for competition and rehabilitation and payment-by-results appear to have made life more difficult for those running High Down prison."
The MoJ has told the Epsom Guardian that its governor is happy for the newspaper to come into the prison on Friday, March 28.
To read the full report click here.
HIGH DOWN FACTS
Holds Category B and C male prisoners, sentenced and on remand including young offenders
Can currently hold 1103 prisoners
A large number of its prisoners have mental health problems, legal and illegal drug use issues and physical or learning disabilities
Many prisoners have a low level of literacy and numeracy
The Stephen Priory Centre has been open for six years. It has state-of-the-art educational facilities with 210 spaces available and 84 computer workshop places
It houses a library, gym complex and The Clink restaurant
Do you know what is going on inside High Down prison? Contact Hardeep Matharu on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 8772 6346.