A HIGHLY critical report of Exeter Prison – one of the most overcrowded in the country – has been described as “grim reading” by the city’s MP Sir Ben Bradshaw.

The prison, on the city’s New North Road, opened in 1853, and the latest inspection on it highlighted a host of issues in spite of some signs of improvement under a new governor.

But it is one of the most violent prisons in the country, with very high levels of self-harm and suicide.

Inspectors returned to the prison in November last year to assess progress after their two previous visits in 2022 and 2018 had results in it issuing urgent notifications, alerting the justice secretary to problems, including the safety of the prisoners. It was the first time a prison had received two consecutive urgent ratings.

The report following the latest inspection says that even though the number of prisoners had dropped by more than a fifth (22 per cent), more than 70 per cent were sharing a cell designed for one.

The standard of the cells was “poor,” with many having no glass in the windows or having exposed electric wires, and others containing mould.

A refurbishment programme has left cells in B wing “in good repair” and have en-suite toilets, which “improved decency”.

The level of violence is “high” with managers “unaware of many of the causes”.

While there had been “good proactive work” to address the reasons for violence, with improved oversight of prisoners, the inspectors still found issues.

“Recorded rates of violence between prisoners remained the highest of all adult male prisons,” the report said.

“Leaders understood the importance of the use of effective peer support schemes to support key areas of work, including safety, however due to national population pressures, the governor was unable to retain prisoners trained in a variety of roles to continue this important work.”

It added that in the six months before its November visit, the rate of assaults had increased by 78 per cent compared to the same period up to the full inspection in 2022.

“Although violence against staff had declined, it too remained among the highest in the adult male prison group,” the report said.

It added that key areas of the prison’s CCTV system remained “poor”.

Sir Ben said issues at the prison had been ongoing for some time, but are indicative of a nationwide problem.

“Although a slight improvement since the urgent notification, this still makes grim reading,” he said.

“The fact is Exeter’s Victorian prison is not fit for purpose in the 21st century, and successive Conservative ministers have failed to grip the recurring problems there, failed to address chronic overcrowding in our prisons and failed to invest in our prisons.

“Prison officers are doing their best in impossible circumstances.”

The inspectors said not enough progress had been made in four areas, including leadership, because Exeter had had three governors, eight deputy governors and eight heads of safety since the previous inspection.

Three areas had seen “reasonable progress”, including inmate welfare, even though the report said the number of self-inflicted deaths and incidents of self-harm was “very high” and care for vulnerable prisoners was “poor”.

However, it did acknowledge that after the urgent notification in 2018, Exeter "did not receive the same support” from HM Prison and Probation Service that it had seen elsewhere.

Bradley Gerrard