Owers: male staff at New Hall jail hold ‘outdated’ attitudes

Some male staff at New Hall women’s prison and young offender institution hold “outdated and inappropriate” attitudes to inmates, especially those with mental health issues, according to chief prisons inspector Anne Owers.

In an inspection report published today, Owers called for an improvement in “generally poor” staff-prisoner relations at the jail, near Wakefield, made worse by a “disproportionate number of male staff for a women’s prison” – 42% of the total.

The report said: “A number of women complained that male officers came into their rooms without warning. Some wing history sheets contained unacceptably derogatory comments and indicated little empathy or understanding of women with mental health problems.”

Cramped accommodation

Women also had “inadequate access to showers” at the time of the announced inspection in November 2008, while much of the dormitory accommodation was “cramped, cold and unfit for purpose”.

Owers said evening association at the closed prison was “too often cancelled”, although women spent “reasonable” time out of their cells.

Support for the high number of women reporting alcohol-related problems was “insufficient”, she added.

Childcare professionals

The mother and baby unit, although “bright and well resourced”, would benefit from “greater involvement of childcare professionals”, and the report criticised the fact prison officers in the unit wore uniforms.

Owers also expressed “considerable concern” over the move to amalgamate New Hall with Askham Grange open women’s prison near York, which took place on April 1.

“The task facing New Hall is huge,” she said. “The wisdom of making its already difficult task more challenging by adding responsibility for this distant satellite must be open to question.”

However, Phil Wheatley, director general of the National Offender Management Service, said clustering New Hall with “high-performing” Askham Grange would “make the best use of available resources to address prisoners’ offending behaviour and keep the public safe”.

Public inquiry

New Hall, which converted to a women’s prison in 1987, was running well below its operation capacity of 447 at the time of the inspection, holding 398 people – 330 adults, 44 young adult women, and 24 girls.

In 2008, the coroner in the inquest of New Hall inmate Petra Blanksby called for better prison facilities for women in mental health problems.

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