Defined Terms

Liverpool: A Broken Prison in a Broken System - Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

On January 19th, 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 is reproduced below, as it captures the brutal levels of degrading mortification operating in the institution:

Some of the most concerning findings were around the squalid living conditions endured by many prisoners. Many cells were not fit to be used and should have been decommissioned. Some had emergency call bells that were not working but were nevertheless still occupied, presenting an obvious danger to prisoners. There were hundreds of unrepaired broken windows, with jagged glass left in the frames. Many lavatories were filthy, blocked or leaking. There were infestations of cockroaches in some areas, broken furniture, graffiti, damp and dirt. 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. The prison was generally untidy and in many places there were piles of rubbish. During the course of the inspection, efforts were made to clear some of it, but there was simply too much. I saw piles of rubbish that had clearly been there for a long time, and in which inspectors reported seeing rats on a regular basis. I was told by a senior member of staff that it had not been cleared by prisoners employed as cleaning orderlies because it presented a health and safety risk. It was so bad that external contractors were to be brought in to deal with it. In other words, this part of the jail had become so dirty, infested and hazardous to health that it could not be cleaned.

This situation was compounded by the failure to maintain the institution by the contracted out services. The works contract was outsourced to GeoAmey (one of 61 contracts the company enjoyed in different prisons) whose website claims that it is a ‘safe, secure and professional service treating those in our care and custody with dignity and respect’. The report told a different story. Astonishingly, because of the ‘serious problems with the resourcing of the works contract, 2000 maintenance jobs were outstanding at the time of the inspection’. This in a prison that was decaying and crumbling.

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All images from HMP Liverpool report

Unofficial Punishments

Beyond the degrading conditions, 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’. Crucially, the report noted that these sanctions were ‘applied by staff outside of any formal policy’ and, therefore, ‘constituted unofficial punishment’. This key issue was ignored in media outlets such as Channel 4 News, the Morning Star and the Liverpool Echo. On the evening of the report’s publication, Channel 4 News, discussed the report in an item which included the families of deceased prisoners discussing their experiences. However, it also included a studio discussion involving the chair of Liverpool’s Prison Officers Association (POA) and the chair of the Justice Select Committee in the House of Commons. The POA representative was allowed to drag the discussion onto the terrain of the cuts and how they had impacted on the institution. This ignored the fact that the pre-cuts prison was also a place of degradation, violence, harm and humiliation. The cuts have intensified these harms, they are not the cause of them. This key issue was ignored.

The use of force was barely documented by prison staff. In the previous six months, ‘force had been used on 288 occasions’. This was lower when compared with the previous inspection ‘but still high’. However, as the report noted:

A significant amount of recent use of force paperwork was incomplete and did not provide assurance of proportionate and necessary use. Fire-retardant hoods that looked like balaclavas were still worn by staff during incidents without obvious reason. In at least one instance the drawing of a baton had not been recorded or investigated. Some completed records also indicated that excessive force had been used by staff but managers were not aware of this. Monthly use of force meetings were not held routinely and not all use of force incidents were reviewed. Data were not being used effectively to help understand and reduce use of force, segregation and adjudication.

Finally, unexplained injuries ‘were recorded but not investigated’.

Death, Health and Prisoner Safety

Between 2005 and 2016, there were 52 deaths in the prison, 27 of which were self-inflicted. 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’. Four prisoners had killed themselves since the previous inspection in 2015, while another two had killed themselves since September 2017. 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’. Importantly, however, when the Chief Inspector visited the prison at night:

 …an officer on one unit was responsible for making observational entries, on average, once every five minutes during his 11-hour shift…We were shocked to find that another officer was unaware that he carried a cell key for use during an emergency. The quality of ACCT documents was inadequate: triggers were incorrectly recorded, care maps were incomplete and reviews were late.

And while the Chief Inspector recognised the individual initiatives that were in place to manage risks, ‘…the ‘overall strategic response to reducing self-harm was underdeveloped’.

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: ‘only 16% of prisoners said that their first night cell was clean. The cells that we inspected were austere and shabby but efforts had been made to remove graffiti’. Only ‘53% of prisoners said they felt safe on their first night. There was only one night officer who could not effectively monitor all the men in his care. On one night during our inspection, he was responsible for enhanced monitoring of 20 new arrivals and 19 prisoners on ACCTs’.

More generally, the physical standards of health care were problematic:

[c]linical rooms varied in cleanliness. Some wing and reception clinical rooms were in a poor state of decoration. They were not cleaned regularly and did not meet required infection control standard… No information could be provided by the relevant contractor regarding the Legionella risk from a disused bath…Not all equipment had been tested and maintained.

Additionally, ‘the serious lack of capacity…and failure to allocate sufficient custody staff to the inpatient unit led to unacceptable outcomes for many of the most vulnerable prisoners’.

Dismissing Prisoners and Denying Accountability

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 Inspector found ‘a number of responses to complaints in a wing office which had been there for as long as three months without being returned to prisoners….Quality assurance of complaints was not robust’. 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’. Additionally, there was no system for tracking applications. Only 22% of prisoners said that their applications were dealt within seven days and no action was taken at meetings.

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’.  Prisoners experienced ‘significant delays in adding telephone numbers to their pin phone account’ while an astonishing 66% of those surveyed had problems receiving or sending mail. Additionally, ‘too many prisoners were placed on closed visits for reasons unrelated to visits’. 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….’

There was no accountability. 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.

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. The institution was ‘unable to meet the needs of many disabled prisoners’. This was in a prison where 450 prisoners had identified themselves as having a disability. Finally, ‘mental health provision had deteriorated significantly’. As a result, those with mental health needs ‘were not consistently seen promptly or reviewed frequently enough….’

The Myth of Rehabilitation


Even on its own terms, the prison was failing in its alleged rehabilitative role:

*        there was no offender management policy, nor coordination between the different groups involved in rehabilitation;

*        assessments were poor and,

*        shockingly, only 23% of prisoners surveyed indicated they had a custody plan.

Given all of the above, it is not surprising that some prisoners chose to respond in different ways through engaging in self-harm, self-inflicted death, drugs and violence. Looking at these responses from the outside, they appear to confirm the pathological nature of the imprisoned. And yet, it is difficult to imagine any human being placed in such anomic, piercing circumstances not to react negatively. What is clear is that it is not individual prisoners who should be seen in pathological terms.

Rather, Liverpool was a pathological, harm-inducing institution breaking apart the lives and psyches of individuals whose lives and psyches were already fractured. It was an institution that was not out of control, as common sense and media discourses would have it. It was in control of the prisoners, revving up fears and anxieties to unacceptable and unbearable levels while brutally extinguishing individual hope or desire to change for the better. 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. What has been done about it? Nothing.

The Failure of the State

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 (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) 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. Further down the penal chain, management at the local level was an invisible presence that failed dismally to control the regime’s purgatorial presence and to offer protection to, and ensure the safety of, the prisoners towards whom they owed a duty of care. Ironically, prisons are supposed to generate a sense of responsibility in those they confine. And yet, they were held in a place that epitomised irresponsibility, underpinned by a toxic, punitive culture of complacency and indifference towards them.


It is worth noting that the Chief Inspector, Peter Clarke, achieved the rank of Deputy Commissioner in the Metropolitan police and is the former Head of Counter Terrorism Command. Therefore, he does not fit the ‘pro-crime, anti-victim’ caricature which has been the standard and offensive response often used by politicians from different, political parties when their penal policies are catastrophically failing, as is the case with Liverpool.

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 the charity INQUEST has called for in the case of Woodhill prison, (] then this will not be the last report of its kind.