In the Media

Prison hampered by flaws in hi-tech roll call system, report reveals

PUBLISHED January 19, 2012

Failings of biometric system that monitors inmates to blame for disrupting education and training at HMP Isis, say inspectors

Almost daily breakdowns in the operation of a cutting-edge biometric roll call system at a new London prison have paralysed its regime, sometimes for hours on end, an official inspection report has revealed.

Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, says the system, under which "100% of prisoners, 100% of the time had to leave an electronic thumbprint" whenever they moved from one part of the jail to another, bedevilled the operation of the entire jail.

HMP Isis opened in July 2010 next to Belmarsh prison in Thamesmead, south-east London, as a training prison for young men aged 18 to 25. It was the first new public prison for 20 years.

But inspectors say that since it opened the jail has faced enormous problems in recruiting staff, and dealing with an influx of prisoners in the immediate aftermath of the riots last August, as well as problems with its new technology.

Hardwick says the roll call system using thumprints has severely disrupted education, training and work at the jail.

Despite moves by the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to get prisoners to work a 40-hour week, inspectors found that more than half the inmates were locked in their cells during the working part of the day.

The inspectors say the electronic roll call system was partly to blame. "If one thumbprint failed to register, the roll check did not tally and all prisoner movement halted ? sometimes for hours ? until a manual check could be done. This happened once or twice a day on each day of the inspection, with the result that education, training, work and other activities were severely disrupted," says the report, published on Thursday.

The inspectors say Isis prison has made progress since it first opened but has a long way to go.

They point to poor staff-prisoner relationships as being at the heart of the problem, with relatively inexperienced new recruits and staff drafted in from other jails resorting too quickly to the use of force or formal disciplinary action. More than 170 fights were recorded in the jail, albeit mostly at a low level.

The inspectors say some aspects of prison life needs rapid improvement, including ensuring that reports of racist incidents were rigorously investigated and concerns that work and jobs were not being allocated fairly between different ethnic groups.

Hardwick said: "Despite the progress it has made, it would be wrong to underestimate the formidable challenges Isis still has to overcome. Achieving a stable, permanent staff group with a common culture and objectives is the [next] essential step.

"The prison now needs to ensure it makes equal progress in delivering its central training function and providing a safe and decent environment for all the young men it holds."

Michael Spurr, the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said: "Recruitment at Isis has posed a challenge but new staff are being absorbed well and are working hard to manage the volatile population.

"The governor and staff are working hard to establish a positive culture and are committed to creating a safe and secure environment. I am confident that they will continue build on the progress made."

?The Prison Service is to team up with a British outsourcing and energy group Mitie to bid to run nine prisons. The management of the prisons is being put out to tender in six contracts, each lasting 15 years. Eight of the prisons are currently run by the public sector. They are Acklington, Castington, Coldingley, Durham, Onley, Hatfield and Moorland. The ninth prison, the Wolds, is run by G4S. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds