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Bullying and violence grip ‘out of control’ Guys Marsh jail, says report

Prisoners are walking around in their dressing gowns or just shorts, smoking outside their cells and pushing ahead in dinner and medicine queues at a jail where inspectors say staff have all but lost control.

Levels of bullying and violence are so high at HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset that one of the wings has become a permanent sanctuary for prisoners fearing for their own safety, a report by the chief inspector of prisons said. Some prisoners on other wings are “self-isolating” – spending less than an hour a day unlocked outside their cells, sometimes for many months.

Peter Clarke, the chief inspector, said the last inspection of Guys Marsh, a category C training prison holding 550 men, in 2014 found it was a prison in crisis “where managers and staff had all but lost control”.

Despite giving the jail six months’ notice of the inspectors’ decision to return last December, they found too little had been done too late to address their serious concerns and that in some ways the the prison had got worse.

Guys Marsh was the scene of a rooftop protest in March when a drunk prisoner set fire to the roof after stripping off and torching his own clothes. Last November, pictures of prisoners partying, drinking, using drugs and eating takeaway fish and chips were posted on Facebook.

The inspectors’ report, published on Tuesday, confirms that the supervision of many prisoners is inadequate. “For example, prisoners walked around in their dressing gowns or just shorts, smoked outside their cell, pushed ahead and received extra food in dinner queues and displayed intimidatory behaviour in medicine queues without being challenged by staff,” it said.

Lack of staff pushback means a permissive culture has developed in which prisoners are able to break or undermine social and prison rules, the inspectors added.

Clarke said he acknowledged many of the difficulties facing the Dorset prison – including that it was in a relatively remote location, staff resources were stretched and many of the prisoners were “serious, challenging and in some cases organised offenders” – but he expressed disappointment that some things had got worse since the previous inspection.

The report said: “Guys Marsh remained unsafe. A quarter of prisoners told us in our survey that they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection and about half had felt unsafe at some point during their stay. Levels of violence were high and rising, with the number of assaults on staff, for example, having tripled since we last inspected.

“Too much of the violence was serious and many prisoners were either seeking sanctuary or self-isolating for their own protection. Interventions by the prison to help reduce violence were insufficient. Much of the violence was indirectly linked to issues of debt amongst prisoners and the widespread availability of illegal drugs. Some 74% of prisoners told us they thought illegal drugs were easily available and nearly a quarter indicated they had acquired a drug problem at the prison.”

The chief inspector said he and his colleagues found failings in nearly every area of the prison they looked at and said the promise of new resources and staff was cause for hope but very careful consideration was going to be needed as to how they were used.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the Prison and Probation Service, responded to the report, saying: “Progress at Guys Marsh has been much slower than required, reflecting the deep-seated challenges facing the prison.

“Additional staffing and resources to tackle the problems are being provided, including an extra 18 prison officer posts. A new, experienced governor has taken charge at the prison. An improvement plan is in place and we will use the recommendations in this report to drive further progress over the coming months.”

But Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the report was the third in six weeks to describe men being so frightened for their safety that they refused to leave their cells. She said: “Guys Marsh prison was given six months’ notice that inspectors were coming, and yet it was still found to be failing in almost every respect. Every warning light on the dashboard is flashing, as is the case across the prison system.”