A recent inspection of Erlestoke Prison near Devizes has revealed an increase in violence, indiscipline and self-harm.

The August review also said the use of force by staff to get prisoners back into poor-quality cells in which they had been locked up for most of the day for more than five months had more than doubled.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons conducted a scrutiny visit to assess its success in returning to acceptable conditions following the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restricted regime during it.

Like other prisons, the category C prison in Wiltshire had effectively protected prisoners from the virus in the early stages of the pandemic, using severely restricted daily regimes.

However, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that overall “the response to the COVID-19 pandemic at HMP Erlestoke has led to a less safe, less decent and less purposeful prison.”

He added: “Although the amount of time prisoners could spend out of their cells had been increased in the early stages of lockdown, during our visit in August 2020 most prisoners still only received 45-minute sessions in the morning and the afternoon, and an additional half an hour one evening a week.”

In addition, he said that had the visit been a full, pre-COVID-19 inspection, he would seriously have considered invoking the Urgent Notification protocol, in which he publicly alerts the Secretary of State to significant problems in a prison.

Instead, Mr Clarke raised his urgent concerns shortly after the visit in a letter to the Secretary of State, Robert Buckland QC. The report findings state that a quarter of prisoners reported feeling unsafe, with the level of assaults remaining similar to the level before the lockdown.

Self-harm by prisoners had increased significantly and there were deficiencies in the process for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm.

In the segregation unit inspectors saw treatment that was “degrading and unacceptable.” They found one prisoner and were made aware of two others who had been without toilets, running water and a cell call bell system for approximately two weeks. They had been given buckets while waiting for cell toilets to be fixed.

Inspectors found broken cell windows with sharp shards of glass, damaged observation panels, blocked toilets and showers that were not working. There was also racist graffiti.

Security staff had been proactive in intercepting drugs but 32% of prisoners said it was easy to get drugs in the prison. Significant amounts of illicit alcohol, so-called hooch, had also been found – 370 litres since the start of the pandemic.

Mr Clarke added: “... the prison appeared to have lost its purpose, which was to address the offending behaviour and reduce the risks of long-term offenders.”