By Mark Leech

I've been the editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales for over 20 years, but the issue of fire safety had never really crossed my mind.

It's not mentioned in any inspection report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, despite the fact that one of its four 'healthy prisons' tests specifically refers to safety. The 'expectations' document on which all prison inspections are based doesn't mention the word 'fire' once.

There has never been a parliamentary inquiry into fire safety in prisons that I can find. Until 2006, after the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 came into force, there were no fire regulations covering prisons at all.

And then, on 14th June this year, everything changed for me. That's when Grenfell Tower happened. And as I watched that blaze on television, the penny finally dropped: Many of our prisons have cladding.

I contacted Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, and asked him whether the Inspectorate had taken any action to inspect for fire safety in light of Grenfell. He replied saying that fire safety in prisons was not his bag – it's the responsibility of an independent inspectorate known as the Crown Properties Fire Inspection Group (CPFIG), based in the Home Office.

I searched online for CPFIG prison fire inspection reports. There were none.

When I contacted them, a spokesman told me: "Due to regulations we work within we are not allowed to publish our reports online."

So I submitted a Freedom of Information request to CPFIG, asking for copies of all CPFIG fire safety inspection reports on prison and young offender establishments carried out in the last 12 months.

They arrived 14 days later. What they contained was deeply troubling.

Of the 19 CPFIG inspections in the year to June 2017, every single one had failed statutory fire safety tests and all were issued with legal notices.

CPFIG found failures such as:

  • The fire risk assessment had not identified all the measures which are required to achieve an acceptable level of risk for prison staff, prisoners, contractors and visitors.
  • The personal emergency evacuation plan did not set out suitable and sufficient individual plans for the evacuation of people with disabilities and had not been reviewed when evacuation needs had changed.
  • Ignition sources were found too close to combustible materials.
  • The ventilation ductwork shared by cells does not provide the necessary protection against the spread of fire and fire gases from cell to cell.
  • The existing smoke control arrangements for enclosed landing areas and corridor approaches are inadequate to prevent smoke spread to other cells in the event of a cell fire.
  • There were insufficient contingency staff during night state to undertake the evacuation of other cells
  • Corridor approach areas contained an excessive level of combustible material.
  • Emergency doors were secured in a manner which prevents them from being easily and immediately opened by any person who may require to use them in an emergency.
  • There was insufficient water misting equipment.
  • There is no plan to use water mist equipment as soon as possible in every case, and always within six minutes of the fire starting.
  • The governor has not implemented the general fire precautions set out in the action plan.

These are not examples of failures across the prison estate. This a partial account of the list of failures found in just one prison: Bristol. They found similar and greater failings in every single prison they inspected in the year to June 2017.

All these prisons were issued with non-compliance notices, followed by 28 day warning notices. The failures in Featherstone, Rochester, Pentonville and Wealstun prison were so serious CPFIG even issued Crown enforcement notices.

But what’s the point? After all, these reports don't appear online and every prison enjoys immunity from prosecution. As a Crown servant, working on Crown property, prison governors cannot be prosecuted, as the Crown cannot prosecute itself. They enjoy complete immunity from prosecution for fire safety breaches.

What makes this worse, given that many failings were due to 'inadequate monitoring', is that every prison has an independent monitoring board (IMB) – a statutory watchdog appointed by the justice secretary, whose job it is to monitor what happens in our prisons and report back their concerns.

When I compared the IMB annual reports of those prisons served with CPFIG non-compliance notices, only one prison – Pentonville – made mention of it. The others simply airbrushed these legal documents out of existence.

Grenfell changed everything – and yet in our prisons it has so far changed nothing.

There are 85,000 people locked up in our prisons, many convicted of arson, with 28,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of people who visit each year. According to a parliamentary written answer in March 2017, there were 2,580 fires in our prisons last year. That’s almost 50 blazes every week. True, many of these are minor – but the fridge-fire in the 4th floor flat that seemingly caused the Grenfell disaster was also minor when it started.

Our prisons could experience that same level of horror at any time. A system has not been put in place to ensure accountability, and as a consequence it is failing to protect those who live, work in and visit our prisons.

We need a system where inspectors report any CPFIG notice issued to the prison, taking prison fire safety seriously. CPFIG must also publish all its fire safety reports online. It’s crazy they are only available via an FOI request. Most importantly of all, we must ensure no one is above the law. The current Crown immunity from prosecution that applies to prison governors must be removed and the law made to apply equally to everyone.

Mark Leech is the editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales.

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