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Will our prisons ever return to normal?

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, identified the lack of a stable and experienced staff group as a “principal cause” of Norwich prison’s difficulties.

This week’s inspection report into Norwich prison and Youth Offender Institute is further evidence of the harsh reality that our prison system is nowhere near recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

The report makes it clear that, in common with “the national trend”, HMP Norwich was “struggling to provide meaningful work, education, and activities” for the 700 prisoners it held.

Inspectors checked the official roll during the working day and found that almost two thirds (65%) of the prison population were locked in their cells, which in the inspectorate branded as “unacceptable”. Inspectors found that most learning and work-based activities were only offered on a part-time basis with the frustrating result that many classes and workshops were operating well below capacity.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, identified the lack of a stable and experienced staff group as a “principal cause” of the prison’s difficulties. Inspectors reported that a severe shortage of prison officers was having a negative impact on outcomes for prisoners in many areas and had recently led to leaders introducing a very limited regime. Although approximately 80% of the allocated complement of officers required for HMP Norwich had been recruited, only around 60% were available, for a range of reasons including temporary promotion, sickness, training and suspension. Inspectors reported that support from overtime bonus schemes and extra officers sent on ‘detached duty’ from other prisons mitigated the staffing situation to an extent, but the amount of time that most prisoners were unlocked remained poor.

Although the prison had been able to recruit officers and had a promising number of new applicants, the level of resignations in the past year had been very high. Inspectors were told that the level of prison officer attrition (28%) was one of the highest in the country, and more than 50 officers had resigned in the previous 12 months. Those officers who responded to the inspectors’ staff survey made a high level of critical comments, suggesting a lack of positive staff engagement.

The prison management were clearly well aware of the issue and had responded by introducing a range of measures to improve retention, including a well-being manager to offer staff support. The senior management team had expanded to include a leader for each wing, in order to strengthen support for the high number of inexperienced officers. Overall, more than 40% of officers had less than two years in service. They had also moved staff around the prison to try to ensure that inexperienced staff were equally distributed across the different wings.

The inspection report lists a litany of problems related to this fundamental problem of not having enough staff. In addition to the fact that most prisoner spent much too time in their cells, inspectors highlighted a number of other concerns including:


We are now 33 months past the date when prisons were first locked down in (relatively successful attempts) to control the spread of COVID within the prison population. Despite the fact that there have been no lockdowns in the community for eighteen months, many people in prison are still having their daily lives severely curtailed.

There is one positive piece of news. Although the prison COVID statistics published last Friday (which cover the period up to 30 November this year) sadly reported that three people in prison had lost their lives to the virus, overall infection rates were low. There were just 206 new confirmed cases in November 2022,  a fall of 440 compared to the previous month. Positive tests were recorded in 42 establishments, 30 fewer than in October.

We must hope that COVID is kept under control in our prisons and that 2023 sees the MoJ succeed in recruiting and, crucially, retaining more prison staff so that prison can again become places of rehabilitation as well as punishment.

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