What makes a good inspector?

Our inspectors come from a variety of backgrounds but share a set of values, which, broadly speaking, are to do with independence, impartiality and integrity, and respect for human rights.

Those values are important, although clearly an understanding and confidence around a custodial setting is necessary. We also need to be able and ready to consult with those detained in a non-judgemental manner.

We have to be able to enquire and assimilate a breadth of information sources - verbal, written, numeric, experiential. We need to be able to be concerned for the experience of the detainee. Above all, we share the belief that institutions and people can change for the better.
Inspectors go out in teams of around four or five, with some specialist staff. We try to ensure that our teams have a balance of skills and professional backgrounds. We employ former prison governors on a seconded basis, as well as people with a connected background - such as social workers and probation officers, drug and healthcare specialists, people with specific technical expertise, latterly with colleagues from police.

Really it’s about people with a breadth of knowledge and a readiness to apply that knowledge within the framework of our values.

We write up our findings based on evidence, to produce an early draft of a report. What follows is an iterative editorial process which includes an opportunity for the inspected body to comment on the draft report concerning matters of factual accuracy before we publish our documents. We produce around 100 inspection reports per year.

It is an intensive work experience, which involves a lot of travel around England and Wales and staying in hotels away from home, and inspectors need to be self-motivated and able to work, at times, alone. But seeing places improve, meaning the outcomes for prisoners improve, and therefore outcomes for the public improve, is truly rewarding.

A day in the life of a prison inspector

Our inspections involve a great deal of walking around the establishments we visit. It’s of fundamental importance. We meet groups of prisoners. Much of our discussion will be led by a survey that our research team have already completed. Finding out prisoners' views and experiences is at the heart of what we do.

Some distrust what prisoners say. Our experience is that most tell the truth and that their views can lead to real insights. The trick is to speak to enough people to get a broad perspective. It’s about making sense from competing messages rather than presuming there is one single truth. We speak to prison staff and managers and the same principle applies.

Our inspections are concerned with the treatment and conditions of detainees and the outcomes they experience. Fundamental to this is our understanding the quality of relationships between staff and prisoners because that influences almost everything in an institution.
We look at a wealth of written evidence, including the survey, policies from each institution, instructions to staff, case notes that impact prisoners, PNOMIS, minutes of meetings and self-harm documentation. We also accept letters from prisoners. But a great deal of our evidence is gathered from being there; who we talk to and what we see.
We don’t look in detail at the efficiency of institutions. That is the responsibility of NOMS.

We look to see whether detainees are safe, are treated with respect, have sufficient activities to occupy them, and whether their resettlement needs are taken into account and acted upon.

Those four things encapsulate our healthy prison tests. There are many ways institutions can achieve those. We don't try to be prescriptive, although clearly it would be wrong to totally disaggregate the processes from the outcomes.
A typical inspection takes place over five days from Monday to Friday. The length of time in between inspections will depend on the risks and issues we'd identified previously. We also go to immigration removal centres, police cells and court cells. We inspect anywhere where people are deprived of their liberty.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons


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