6 February 2017

Blog by Joe Sim

On 19 January 2018, the Chief Inspector of Prisons published a lacerating report on the state of Liverpool prison. It highlighted, in bleak detail, the ‘abject failure of HMP Liverpool to offer a safe, decent and purposeful environment’. Conditions were the worst the Inspectorate had ever seen.

Every aspect of the regime – safety, respect, purposeful activity, rehabilitation and release planning – was criticised. Despite the odd pocket of good practice, such as the nursing staff who were ‘caring and kind in their approach’, overall, prisoners were systematically degraded. They existed in putrefying, soul-crunching conditions which corroded any spiritual, social or psychological development.

A harrowing, detailed description of one prisoner’s experience captures brutal levels of degrading treatment:

Some of the most concerning findings were around the squalid living conditions endured by many prisoners...In one extreme case, I found a prisoner who had complex mental health needs being held in a cell that had no furniture other than a bed. The windows of both the cell and the toilet recess were broken, the light fitting in his toilet was broken with wires exposed, the lavatory was filthy and appeared to be blocked, his sink was leaking and the cell was dark and damp. Extraordinarily, this man had apparently been held in this condition for some weeks. The inspectors had brought this prisoner’s circumstances to the attention of the prison, and it should not have needed my personal intervention for this man to be moved from such appalling conditions.

Previous recommendations arising from earlier inspections designed to improve the prison had effectively been ignored, a problem throughout the prison system. Of the 89 recommendations made in 2015, only 23 had been achieved, 14 had been partially achieved and 53 had not been achieved. These data plug into the longer historical trend in ignoring official recommendations at the prison. Between 2012 and 2014, the Inspectorate made 288 recommendations about the prison. Only 34% were achieved, leaving 66% partially achieved or not achieved.


Death, health and prisoner safety

INQUEST has worked with numerous families bereaved by a death in HMP Liverpool. Recent inquest conclusions have shown evidence of systemic neglect and repeated serious failings by prison staff and managers, including failing to implement suicide and self-harm monitoring policies (known as ACCT). Inquests have also found that violence and bullying have contributed to self-inflicted deaths (see our recent media release on HMP Liverpool for links to recent cases here).

Between 2005 and 2016, there were 52 deaths in the prison, 27 of which were self-inflicted. In 2017 there were four deaths in HMP Liverpool, three self-inflicted and one awaiting classification.

The Chief Inspector noted that ‘[r]reasonable progress had been made in implementing Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s recommendations following deaths in custody but self-harm was increasing’.  It was found that ‘mental health provision had deteriorated significantly’. As a result, those with mental health needs ‘were not consistently seen promptly or reviewed frequently enough.’

There had been 184 incidents of self-harm in the previous six months. Officially, prisoners who are regarded as being at risk of a self-inflicted death have an ACCT form opened on them. In the previous six months, ‘ACCT’s had been opened 546 times and on one day during our inspection 68 prisoners were on ACCTs’.

How prisoners are treated in the early stages of their confinement is a key, risk factor in any decision they might make to kill themselves. Despite this knowledge, conditions in the reception area were poor.


Dismissing prisoners and denying accountability

Unofficial punishments were utilised by staff, a point prisoners and ex-prisoners have been making for decades about Liverpool, and other prisons. Prisoners who refused to leave the segregation unit were subjected to sanctions which, in the words of the report, ‘lacked decency such as withholding showers and telephone calls’. Sanctions were ‘applied by staff outside of any formal policy’ and, therefore, ‘constituted unofficial punishment’.

The dismissive attitude towards prisoners was clear in the complaints procedure. Only 10% of those surveyed, who had made a complaint, indicated that it had been dealt with within seven days while only 20% felt that their complaints were dealt with fairly.

The legal isolation of the prisoners was reinforced by the fact that there was ‘no legal advice service’, no ‘”access to justice”’ laptops, no information was displayed about bodies such as the Legal Ombudsman and ‘[l]egal visits continued to start late’.

One of the most poignant themes in the report was the lack of contact with families. Given that family contact is crucial in the process of rehabilitation, the institution’s palpable failure in this area was nothing short of disgraceful. The report noted that ‘[t]he support given to men to maintain contact with the outside world had deteriorated since the last inspection and opportunities were missed in several areas’. 

In terms of purposeful activity, 43% of prisoners surveyed said that they ‘usually spent less than two hours out of their cell on a typical weekday’ while there was ‘no association periods during the week, exercise periods outside were for only half an hour and men only received time to carry out domestic tasks every other day.’


Differential suffering

Black and minority ethnic prisoners ‘spoke more negatively about their treatment than white prisoners’. The report noted that the monitoring of the adjudication, incentives and earned privileges and complaints systems showed ‘a disproportionate number of prisoners in the areas of age, ethnicity and religion’.  The reasons for this disproportionality had not been investigated. There was ‘little evidence of staff using professional interpreting and translation’ for foreign national prisoners who were consequently isolated on the prison’s wings.

In a prison where 450 prisoners had identified themselves as disabled, the Inspectorate found that the institution was unable to meet their needs.  


The failure of the state

The prisoners’ aching desolation was ignored. There was no circle of safety for them. They were human junk left to fester in a rotting and rotten penal dustbin. There was an institutionalised taboo on pity, mercy and empathy.

The one problem with the report is that it failed to recognise that the prison has always been like this. It had, and continues to have, a fearsome reputation amongst prisoners and ex-prisoners, alongside other ‘screws’ nicks’ like Birmingham, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. In that sense, issues identified by the Chief Inspector are not new, the problems may have become more intense but the actual nature of the regime has been evident for decades.

After the report’s publication, the Chief Inspector pointed out that there was a failure of leadership at local, regional and national levels. This is also not surprising given that there have been five Ministers of Justice in the last four years while the longest serving prison minister in history lasted 25 months. However, the failure of national penal policy did not stop senior prison service managers receiving bonuses in 2016-17. The Chief Executive of the Prison Service earned £145,000-£150,000 annually. An additional £25,000 was paid into his pension pot. He, and four other, senior managers earned £50,000 to £75,000 between them in bonuses.



The Justice Select Committee met to discuss the report the week after its publication. It was the first time that the Committee had ‘ever inquired into an individual inspection report because, frankly, we were so horrified at what we saw’.

The Committee heard from prison service officials that a number of the worst cells had been taken out of commission and that purposeful activity had increased. Committee members also recognised that there was an issue about the non-implementation of official recommendations with the consequent problem this generated for the democratic accountability of the institution. And while they correctly acknowledged that Liverpool was ‘well-resourced in terms of staff’ and, therefore, staffing levels had nothing to do with the degrading state of the prison, the infliction of punishment, officially and unofficially by prison staff, was, as ever, neglected. Until that key issue is recognised, and dealt with, by those who are supposed to oversee the prison system in England and Wales, then it is unlikely that the crisis at Liverpool, or, indeed other prisons, will be alleviated.

Government ministers, old and new, should be ashamed of the callous immorality displayed in Liverpool, as should prison service managers and many, though not all, of those who work in the institution. The report demonstrates a moral and political dereliction of duty which, if it happened in other organisations, would be unequivocally condemned, and indeed, could result in prosecutions. Why has this not happened in this case? As ever, a culture of immunity and impunity prevails when it comes to taking any action against those who either fail to do their job, or fail in their duty of care towards prisoners. Until such action is taken, and state servants are held accountable for their actions, through the utilisation of provisions in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 to investigate deaths in custody, as INQUEST has called for in the case of Woodhill prison, then this will not be the last report of its kind.


Joe Sim is a Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and a member of the INQUEST board of trustees. This is an edited version of a longer article that first appeared on the Liverpool John Moores, Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion website.