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By David Mercer, news reporter

Thousands of potentially dangerous inmates are being released without proper checks on the threat they pose, the chief inspector of prisons has warned.

In a damning report, Peter Clarke said prisoners who potentially pose a "high risk of harm" to the public were being released "without a full risk assessment".

He also criticised the "poor response" from the Prison Service to the "systemic issue" – which he said he had repeatedly raised – as he presented his annual findings into jails in England and Wales.

The chief inspector's wide-ranging report also found:

  • Prison suicides have risen by nearly a fifth in a year
  • Levels of self-harm across jails are "disturbingly high"
  • Twenty two jails out of 28 inspected were found to be "unsafe"
  • Too many prisons are being "plagued by drugs, violence and appalling living conditions"
  • Violence increased in more than half of jails inspected

Mr Clarke suggested an independent inquiry may be needed into the "scandal" of prison suicides.

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Some 83 "self-inflicted" deaths were recorded in male prisons in England and Wales in 2018-19, up from 72 the previous year.

There was also a 25% increase in reported incidents of self-harm in 2018.

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Mr Clarke said the Prison Service's response to the "deluge of drugs flowing into many prisons in recent years" – which had generated debt, bullying and violence – had often been slow and was "neither robust or sophisticated".

He was also critical of "special measures" aimed at turning around failing jails, citing the case of Lewes Prison which – after two years of special measures – was worse than before the regime was changed.

Sky's senior correspondent David Bowden, who listened to Mr Clarke present his findings, said the report suggested the Prison Service "appeared to be unfit for purpose".

February 2019: Sky News goes inside southeast London prison

The chief inspector said he visited Birmingham Prison where he found blood-stained clothing, a pool of blood on the floor and rat droppings, which an inmate claimed had been there "for some time", Bowden said.

"There seems to be a growing feeling frustration that every year he puts out a damning report and… very few people are actually taking any notice," he added.

The report said inspectors found "very high levels of vulnerability, self-harm and suicide" at HMP Exeter, with emergency call bells in cells "ignored by staff, even when they were not busy".

Inspectors found having phones in cells and electronic kiosks for inmates to use had a positive impact but warned "far too many prisoners still endured very poor and overcrowded living conditions", Mr Clarke said.

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