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HMP Lewes: rising violence, self-harm and drugs hampering progress at troubled jail

An inspection of HMP Lewes found the jail battling rising violence, self-harm, drugs and a churn of men caught in a cycle of homelessness and offending as the prison service continues to grapple with the effects of the population crisis.

Lewes had been in such a concerning state at its last two inspections that the Chief Inspector of Prisons took the unusual step of notifying the prison service when Lewes would next be inspected in a bid to drive more urgent improvement. While a dynamic new governor clearly understood the scale of the challenge and was already having an impact, the jail was struggling with rising violence and self-harm – which were both notably worse than other reception prisons – and a serious drug problem. More than half of prisoners were receiving support for substance use and 28% tested positive for drugs in mandatory testing.

Fuelling the demand for drugs was the very poor provision of purposeful activity: only a third of prisoners were engaged in education or employment. While the prison had clear plans to improve this and was delivering some creative initiatives through its library and physical education team, many men spent as little as two hours out of their cell a day. Even a working day was as little as 1.5 hours each in the morning and afternoon, which fell far short of mirroring that in the community.

More than half of those held in Lewes were on remand, ie being held in prison while they awaited a date for their trial, with an increasing number of men arriving from London and Hampshire where local reception prisons were too full to receive them. Early days in custody are a particularly risky time for men physically withdrawing from substances or coming to terms with their imprisonment. Concerningly, when first night cells were full, men were instead held in cells on the wing that housed sex offenders or others wanting to be kept separate from the main population where they received no induction and very little support or time out of cell until a cell became available.

The new Governor of Lewes had made some real improvement since our last visit, but the jail remained trapped in a cycle of staffing shortfalls, boredom, and drugs driving rising violence and self-harm. Too many men were released homeless and inevitably recalled very shortly thereafter. None of this is unique to Lewes; reception prisons up and down the country continue to be on the frontline of the current population crisis, grappling with increasingly transient populations, ageing infrastructure and a lack of activity places for the populations that they are being asked to hold.
Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

The inspection of Lewes took place immediately after the introduction of the Government’s early release scheme and found that its implementation was undermining good, safe release planning and risk management. Release dates for some high-risk prisoners had been brought forward at short notice, forcing already stretched resettlement agencies to redraw existing plans from scratch in as little as two or three weeks. In one case, a high-risk prisoner who was a risk to children had his release date brought forward despite having a history of stalking, domestic abuse and being subject to a restraining order. Another high-risk prisoner with significant class A drug misuse issues and a recent history of suicidal thoughts and self-harm was released from the segregation unit to homelessness despite appeals for the decision to be reversed and staff having serious concerns for his and the public’s safety. He was recalled to custody before the inspection had ended.

The need to release offenders early to free up space in our jails is a further sign of the pressure that our prison service is under, with local leaders having to make difficult choices as the day we run out of places draws closer. The current situation was entirely predictable and is simply not sustainable, for either the prison or probation service. Although some of these issues may, I hope, reduce as the scheme embeds, more fundamentally, an urgent conversation is needed about who we send to prison, for how long, and what we want to happen during their time inside.
Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 14 May 2024, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at:
  2. This inspection took place between 5-16 February 2024.
  3. HMP Lewes is a Category B reception and resettlement prison in East Sussex. The prison held 578 men at the time of the inspection, 316 of whom were receiving support for substance use.
  4. HMP Lewes received an average of around 213 men a month and released 65. In 2003, Lewes held 700 recalled prisoners.
  5. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  6. The government’s End of Custody Supervised Licence scheme, “early release”, was introduced in October 2023 and initially allowed prisoners to be released up to 18 days before their conditional release date. In March, this was extended to “around 35 days to 60 days” by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.
  7. Please email if you would like more information.