Deaths, drugs and violence - inspectors’ worrying findings at HMP Durham

Inspectors found HMP Durham has significant problems with drugs, violence and worryingly high levels of self-harm, suicide and drug related deaths.

HMP Durham.
HMP Durham.

Described as a ‘heavily overcrowded prison’, violence at the prison has doubled since the and seven self-inflicted deaths.

Durham became a reception prison in 2017 and around 70% of the 900 men in the jail were either on remand or subject to recall and more than 70% had been in Durham for less than three months.

On average, 118 new prisoners arrived at the prison each week and a significant numbers of prisoners said they arrived at the jail feeling depressed or suicidal.

The inspectors fiound that self-harm was very high.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Our overriding concern was around the lack of safety.

“Since the last inspection in October 2016, there had been seven self-inflicted deaths, and it was disappointing to see that the response to recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (which investigates deaths) had not been addressed with sufficient vigour or urgency.

“There had also been a further five deaths in the space of eight months where it was suspected that illicit drugs might have played a role.”

The report says drugs were readily available in the jail and nearly two-thirds of prisoners said it was easy to get drugs while 30% said they had acquired a drug habit since coming into the prison.

The prison had developed a strategy to address the drugs problem.

Mr Clarke added that leadership at the prison was “immensely frustrated” by the fact that they had no modern technology available to them to help them in their efforts to stem the flow of drugs into the prison.

He said: “We were told that they had been promised some modern scanning equipment but that it had been diverted to another prison.”

The scale of the drugs problem and related violence meant that technological support was urgently needed.

Since the last inspection at Durham in 2016, violence had doubled and the use of force by staff had increased threefold, though some of the increase in force may have been due to new staff who were not yet confident in using de-escalation techniques. Governance of the use of force had improved.

“There were some very early signs that the level of violence was beginning to decline, but it was too early to be demonstrable as a sustainable trend,” Mr Clarke added.

Alongside these concerns, inspectors noted “many positive things happening at the prison.” These included the introduction of in-cell phones and electronic kiosks on the wings for prisoners to make applications, which had “undoubtedly been beneficial”. The disruption caused by prisoners needing to be taken to court had been reduced by the extensive use of video links.

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, 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 technology, can be implemented to further strengthen the prison’s approach to tackling drugs. We are under no illusions that there is much still to do.”