Maintenance at trouble-hit HMP Erlestoke appears to be improving after a new senior manager was appointed to the facilities company, the chairman of the prison monitoring board said.

Earlier this summer, the board warned of serious failures at senior leadership level by Gov Facility Services Ltd, the Ministry of Justice-owned company set up in 2018 after the collapse of Carillion.

The board’s warning was followed up in September with an HM Inspectorate of Prisons report that lambasted conditions at the Wiltshire jail, warning of blocked toilets, broken showers and windows. Inspectors found a “very troubling” picture of violence, disorder, illicit alcohol use and self-harm.

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HMP Erlestoke, Wiltshire's only prison

In the wake of that report, South Swindon MP and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland promised the range of new measures to address issues identified by the prison inspectors.

And one, at least, appears to have had an immediate impact.

Nicholas Rheinberg, former Wiltshire coroner and now chairman of the independent monitoring board for Erlestoke, said a new senior manager had been appointed by GFSL at the 500-prisoner jail.

“Wonder upon wonders you’ve got new showers going in, you’ve got this being repaired, you’ve got that being repaired. So, the report has had a very positive affect in some areas,” he told the Adver.

He said issues about the poor state of repair at the prison had been flagged by the monitoring board for at least the past two years.

Mr Rheinberg said: “The problem has largely been not so much the lack of money, although that does feature. More, total inefficiency by the Gov Facility Services Ltd and the problem with management there, which was totally failing.

“To give one example of lack of response, for a considerable amount of time the governor was complaining to the manager of GFSL that the floodlights in the sterile area, which is the area around the gate, the complaint was the lights are on in the day time and could you please alter the timer? I think it took a daily request for well over a week before that problem was solved. It’s just a tiny, silly sort of thing but that’s the sort of problem that has been faced by the prison.”

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Former coroner Nicholas Rheinberg, now chairman of the Erlestoke prison independent monitoring board Picture: NEWSQUEST

In his letter to Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke last month, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said a new “enhanced service delivery manager” would be on site at Erlestoke prison two days a week to support GFSL and improve oversight, scrutiny and accountability.

“The facilities provider will also bring in an additional site manager to specifically oversee the immediate improvements required to showers,” he said.

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A picture showing the poor state of repair at HMP Erlestoke Picture: HM Prisons Inspectorate

Complaints about poor maintenance and failures by contractors to deliver construction projects on time are not new.

A decade ago, in its 2009/10 report, the independent monitoring board flagged to government and the prison service “ongoing failure by prison service contractors to deliver their construction projects on time and to specification without continuous problems going forward”. Those problems went beyond usual teething issues and resulted in a significant waste of money, they said.

When Carillion went bust in 2018, responsibility for maintaining the prison estate was taken over by Whitehall-owned company Gov Facility Services Ltd. The Ministry of Justice invested £4m in its set up, with the firm taking on around 1,000 Carillion workers.

However, the problems at Erlestoke continued. In September 2019, the prison’s independent monitoring board noted: “The establishment of GFSL following the demise of Carillion has not seen the improvements in service that were hoped for.” They asked the minister to consider other ways maintenance of the prison could be provided.

A year on, in its 2019/20 report, the same monitoring board again lambasted the “poor performance” of the government company. Their recommendation to ministers was abrupt and went further than previous year.

“GFSL continues to disappoint,” the report authors wrote. “Will the Minister consider ways in which radical changes can be made to ensure a responsive and well-managed system for repairs and improvement?”

The report catalogued a number of complaints. It talked about an “inability” of GFSL to manage large contracts, saying funding from the NHS for a new medical facility at Erlestoke prison was almost lost when GFSL failed to provide costing figures for the project. Deep cleans – contracted out by the company – were “unsatisfactory”. Windows on some wings still needed reglazing after 16 months. Failures by senior managers in GFSL were identified as the main reason for poor performance, although the report noted that the timeliness of routine repairs had improved and general cleanliness was better.