Concerns over deaths, attacks and drugs in report into life in Durham Jail

Increases in the use of force, attacks, deaths in custody and the use of illegal drugs including Spice have been highlighted as issues of concern in one of the region’s jails.

John Davidson, chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board of HMP Durham, outside the city centre jail.
John Davidson, chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board of HMP Durham, outside the city centre jail.

The safety fears voiced about the 900-inmate HMP Durham go hand in hand with major changes, which saw it become the country’s first reception prison in May 2017.

The issues have been singled out by the volunteers from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) which checks on the day-to-day life of men being detained and its rules and conditions, meet with prisoners and work with staff and service providers at the site, which handles inmates sent from the region’s courts.

It has said the number of deaths rose from seven in 2017 to 11 in 2018, with five of those “apparently self-inflicted,” four due to natural causes and two following palliative care.

Use of force has gone up from 200 incidents in 2017 to 612 last year, with injuries sustained to 31 prisoners and 41 instances where staff were hurt.

Over the last year the incidence of violent assaults doubled, rising from 250 to 542 last year.

Spice has also been highlighted among drugs causing concern, with scanners already in use elsewhere still to be installed.

There have been instances where the substance has been impregnated into paper and dusted in hair as it is smuggled into the Old Elvet compound.

John Davidson, chairman of HMP Durham’s IMB board, said: “Within the annual reporting period the prison has adapted well to the many challenges which the increase in workload that the change has brought.

“The main issue affecting the prison is safety.

“The prison has seen large increases in the use of force, assaults, deaths in custody and illegal use of drugs.

“The board feels this is the biggest challenge facing the prison.”

Prisoners spend between a few days and 28 days at the jail, with the residency of the complex changeable by 500 each day.

Its education scheme has been praised as part of the report, with 20 areas around the prison set up to help inmates begin their journey to improve their skills.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Safety is the Governor’s top priority and, while Durham has significant challenges, progress is being made.

“Since the introduction of the prison officer key worker scheme, violent incidents, self-harm and disruptive behaviour have all reduced.

“The prison is also working closely with the police and the NHS to tackle illicit drug use.

“We are developing a national strategy to restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery.

“As part of this process we will consider which measures, including scanners, are being rolled out to further strengthen the prison’s approach to tackling drugs.”

The IMB is recruiting new members, with a deadline set for the end of the month.

The full report and more information can be found via