[Update 29th July 2017: The Independent]
On 14th June 2017 the Grenfell Tower fire disaster caused at least 80 deaths and many serious injuries – a public inquiry is now underway and the Metropolitan Police are considering criminal charges of corporate manslaughter – but how safe are our prisons, when it comes to fire safety?
Not just for the 85,000 prisoners, and the 28,000 staff – but for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit our prisons each year?
You will be shocked by the facts.
What he discovered from previously unpublished reports obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request is truly shocking – every single fire safety inspection in our prisons conducted over the last 12 months resulted in ‘non-compliance’ notices being issued and in some cases Statutory Enforcement Notices had to be issued to those Governors who, having been issued with written warnings of non-compliance, and then 28 day notices to put things right, even then failed to take corrective action to ensure prisoners, staff and visitors were safe.
And it is hardly surprising so many are ignored when prisons and Young Offender Institutions – like all other Crown Premises – are totally immune from prosecution – a ridiculous situation in 2017 and a situation post-Grenfell that would not be tolerated in hotels, guest houses, work places, hospitals or dozens of other places where people work or reside and have a right to be kept safe.
None of these documents, the non-compliance notices, the 28-day warning letters nor the Statutory Enforcement Notices have been made public – until today.
We publish them all here – at the bottom of this page.
HM Prisons Inspectorate, which has statutory responsibility for inspecting prisons, does not concern itself at all with fire safety – its ‘Expectations’ document with its four ‘Healthy Prisons Tests’ – one of which is specifically about ‘Safety’ – indeed does not even mention the word ‘Fire’ at all – not once.
Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 11/2015 (para 4.44) states that all prisoners should be given fire safety advice and that this should normally be done on induction – but PSI 07/2015 which sets out what should happen during prisoner induction, does not even mention the word ‘fire’ once either.
Mark Leech said: “This glaring anomaly, the disconnect between the theory of fire safety and its shambolic practice, has never appeared in any Inspection Report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons – nor in any of his annual reports.
“There is, says the Chief Inspector, good reason for this: fire safety is nothing to do with him – and while legally he is correct, it cannot be right that he can simply choose to ignore the real dangers that exist – but he continues to stay silent which frankly is inexcusable.”
According to a Parliamentary Written Answer (59711) in March 2017 – there were 2,580 fires in our prisons in 2016; that is almost fifty blazes a week.
Mark Leech said: “Of course many of these fires are minor – but the fridge-fire that seemingly started in the 4th floor flat of Grenfell Tower on 14th June 2017 was also minor to begin with – but it still robbed 80 people of their lives and devastated the lives of countless others.
“And let’s be absolutely clear – this is not about Governors or prison staff treating prisoners with contempt because they couldn’t care less about fire safety – it is about their not having enough staff to make the daily staff ‘pegs’ fit the required task ‘holes’.
“In that atmosphere Governors have to prioritise staff and bluntly, when it comes down to unlocking prisoners for medication, food or visits, or conducting fire safety checks, the latter doesn’t even come near the top as these Inspection non-compliance failures show.”
The responsibility for inspecting fire safety in prisons rests with the Crown Properties Fire Inspection Group (CPFIG) which is a part of the Home Office.
This independent statutory organisation has responsibility for conducting fire safety inspections of all prison and young offender establishments – but they have not published their reports until they were obtained by Mark Leech under the Freedom of Information Act.
As CPFIG say: “Prisons must comply with the Fire Safety Order but have immunity against prosecution if they fail to do so. CPFIG’s approach to enforcement is to use ‘Crown Notices’ in place of statutory notices. These Notices are not enforceable but provide definitive statements of the fire safety deficiencies at any establishment and invariably result in the prison (with guidance from a multi-disciplinary stakeholder group led by the HMPPS National Fire Safety Team) developing and submitting an action plan for addressing the deficiencies.”
Mr Leech said: “It is obvious from the shocking reports that I have uncovered that Prisons do not routinely conduct fire drills, they have no evacuation tests, muster points are not clear, emergency lighting is inadequate, fire-fighting equipment is lacking, risk assessments are incomplete, if they exist at all and since Grenfell there has been no nation-wide survey as to the risk posed by prisons that have cladding – in short the theory and practice of fire safety in our prisons have been allowed to slip their handcuffs despite copious independent warnings.
“Continuing Crown Immunity from prosecution for failures in places which have 50 fires a week and which, by necessity detain those with mental health problems and convictions for arson, must now surely end – it is simply inexplicable in this day and age.”
Prison Service Instruction 11/2015 Fire Safety
Prison Service Instruction 07/2015 Induction
Prison Fire Safety Inspections – Summary (Compiled by Niamh McIntyre)
(c) Mark Leech, Prisons Org UK 2017