Drugs smuggled by drone, hundreds of acts of self-harm, high-risk prisoners released early, increasing violence, crumbling infrastructure and dirty rooms... The stark reality of life at Lewes Prison has been laid bare in a damning report.

An inspection of HMP Lewes found there were "some worrying holes" in public protection arrangements and nearly a third of prisoners tested positive for drugs.

In the past year, two prisoners died of substance misuse, while another killed himself.

Only four prisoners were subject to phone or mail monitoring and there was some "chaotic planning" for those who were released at short notice.

The jail, which continues to grapple with the effects of the prison capacity crisis, had been in such a concerning state at its last two inspections that the Chief Inspector of Prisons took the unusual step of notifying the Prison Service when Lewes would next be inspected in a bid to drive more urgent improvement.

The inspection report was made public today. It revealed that, while an average of 213 new prisoners joined HMP Lewes each month, about 65 a month were released.

The Argus: A cell at HMP LewesA cell at HMP Lewes (Image: HM Prisons Inspectorate)

The inspection, carried out in February, found that boredom fuelled problems as some men spent just two hours a day out of their cells.

Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of prisons, said: “The new Governor of Lewes had made some real improvement since our last visit, but the jail remained trapped in a cycle of staffing shortfalls, boredom, and drugs driving rising violence and self-harm.

“Too many men were released homeless and inevitably recalled very shortly thereafter.

The Argus: A refurbished cell at HMP LewesA refurbished cell at HMP Lewes (Image: HM Prisons Inspectorate)

“None of this is unique to Lewes; reception prisons up and down the country continue to be on the frontline of the current population crisis, grappling with increasingly transient populations, ageing infrastructure and a lack of activity places for the populations that they are being asked to hold.”

Among the findings in the report were:

  • A prisoner who was a risk to children had his release date brought forward despite having a restraining order and a history of stalking and domestic abuse. This was because of the End of Custody Supervised Licence (ECSL) scheme which is an attempt to deal with prison overcrowding.
  • 28 per cent of prisoners at HMP Lewes tested positive for drugs.
  • 210 men had carried out over 600 acts of self-harm in the past year. The prison holds 578 men.
  • About 20% of prisoners were released as street homeless.
  • Many cells remained in unsatisfactory condition and a small number were poor, with heavily stained toilets, faulty electric fixtures and dilapidated furniture.
  • Drugs were brought in by drones and thrown over the wall.

Many of the concerns were found despite the fact that HMP Lewes had been made aware of the inspection six months in advance. Inspections are usually unannounced.

It found that the prison was not sufficiently good for safety, respect, or preparing prisoners for release.

The report read: "It was disappointing that although the prison was cleaner, there remained ingrained dirt in some of the communal areas and rubbish outside had not been cleared away.

"The ingress of drugs was a serious problem at Lewes and this was a cause of some of the increases in violence and the use of force. Although there had been a recent reduction in assaults, it was too early to tell if this was the beginning of a trend.

"The amount of time that prisoners spent unlocked was better than at the last inspection but was still not as good as we have seen elsewhere.

"The levels of self-harm at the jail continued to be too high, some of which was no doubt caused by the day-to-day frustrations of prisoners, such as long periods of lock up, the poor response to applications, difficulties with booking visits and the amount of time they were spending stuck on remand."

The prison also performed poorly for providing prisoners with purposeful activities with only one in three men taking part in any education or work.

The Argus: Outside areas at HMP LewesOutside areas at HMP Lewes (Image: HM Prisons Inspectorate)

HMP Lewes is also has some of the highest numbers of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults for any similar jail in the UK in the past year.

A third of prisoners said they currently felt unsafe and half said they had feared for their safety during their time there.

One in five prisoners also said they could not shower every day and that some showers were not properly cleaned with “unreliable” hot water.

In certain wings some prisoners were only allowed out of their cells for an hour a day at weekends.

The inspection also found that more force was being used to manage the prison. Force was used 578 times in the last year including batons and Pava incapacitant spray.

The Argus: HMP Lewes gatesHMP Lewes gates (Image: HM Prisons Inspectorate)

Other issues at the prison included a cycle where prisoners were released with nowhere to live, making them homeless.

In one case, a prisoner experiencing suicidal thoughts and with a history of drug abuse was released to homelessness. He was recalled before the week-long inspection had ended.

Inspectors also noted that HMP Lewes remained "fragile" and suffered from "crumbling infrastructure in need of substantial investment".

The inspection also found that many of the prisoners were waiting on remand and less than half of the prison population had been sentenced.

Of 15 concerns raised in previous inspections, just one had been fully addressed.

A visit in April last year showed the prison had got worse since 2022, inspectors noted that the prison had marginally improved this time around.

Despite the failings, 70 per cent of prisoners said they were treated with respect at the prison and inspectors noted that improvements were being made since a new governor arrived in August 2023.

Mr Taylor added: “The need to release offenders early to free up space in our jails is a further sign of the pressure that our prison service is under, with local leaders having to make difficult choices as the day we run out of places draws closer.

“The current situation was entirely predictable and is simply not sustainable, for either the prison or probation service.

“Although some of these issues may, I hope, reduce as the scheme embeds, more fundamentally, an urgent conversation is needed about who we send to prison, for how long, and what we want to happen during their time inside.”

Previously Mr Taylor said that HMP Lewes should "ideally no longer be used" as they cannot provide decent accommodation or activities that would reduce the risk of re-offending.

The issues come amid concerns about the capacity of prisons in the UK. Some offenders in prisons across the country have had their sentences reduced or have avoided prison altogether due to a lack of space to accommodate them.

HM Prison Inspectorate noted in their report that many new inmates arriving at HMP Lewes were coming from London or Hampshire due to pressures on prisons in their area.

The inspection did note that there were "more encouraging signs" at the prison compared to the last two visits and expected to see further improvements.