HMP Oakwood urgently needed to improve and there were real risks if matters were allowed to drift, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection of the training prison near Wolverhampton – causing one expert commentator to call for it to be brought under public sector prison management.

Oakwood is a new training prison that opened in April 2012 under the management of G4S. It can hold more than 1,600 prisoners. This report records the prison’s first independent inspection and it is a concerning report. The prison had many advantages in terms of its design and facilities but there was a palpable level of frustration among prisoners at their inability to get even basic issues addressed. The inexperience of staff was everywhere evident and systems to support routine services were creaky, if they existed at all. The quality of the environment and accommodation mitigated against some of the frustrations and without this risks could have been much greater. Against all four healthy prison tests: safety, respect, activity and resettlement, the outcomes inspectors observed were either insufficient or poor.

Inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • too many prisoners felt unsafe and indicators of levels of violence were high, although inspectors had no confidence in the quality of recorded data or the structures and arrangements to reduce violence;
  • induction arrangements were weak;
  • the first night centre was diverted by its need to provide an additional sanctuary for vulnerable prisoners;
  • levels of self-harm were high and processes to support those in crisis were not good enough;
  • there was clear evidence of illicit drug and alcohol use as well as the improper diversion of prescribed medication;
  • prisoners were unable to access basic facilities, such as cleaning materials and kit;
  • staff-prisoner relationships were not respectful and prisoners had little confidence in staff to act consistently or to get things done;
  • many staff were passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion, and there was clear evidence of staff failing to tackle delinquency or abusive behaviour;
  • the promotion of diversity was poor and the care needs of some prisoners with disabilities were not met;
  • the provision of health care was very poor and as a consequence, the health provider has received a regulatory enforcement notice from the Care Quality Commission;
  • well over a third of prisoners were locked up during the working day and only just over half were in activity at any one time;
  • leadership in learning and skills was poor, there were not enough activity places and those that were available were not fully used;
  • the delivery of resettlement and offender management was uncoordinated with very poor offender management work; and
  • the prison urgently needed to decide how it was going to address the offending behaviour risks of its near 300 sex offenders.

However, inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • segregation was managed reasonably and not used excessively; and
  • the environment and accommodation was impressive.

Nick Hardwick said:

“There is a lot to do before Oakwood is operating anywhere near effectively. Positively, the prison is an excellent facility. We found a management and staff team that were working hard and seemed keen to do the right thing. A new director had recently been appointed and had analysed what needed to be done accurately. But the prison urgently needed a plan to retrieve the situation and there were real risks if matters were allowed to drift. Prisoner frustration needed to be addressed. Systems that delivered basic services had to be made to work. Work to build the competence and confidence of staff was required. Health care had to be delivered effectively. The quality of management information had to improve and the prison needed to engage and communicate more effectively with prisoners. Finally, the prison needed to create structures that will ensure progress is monitored, that changes are coordinated and that improvement is sustained and embedded.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), said:

“The challenge of opening any new prison should not be underestimated. It is a complex and difficult operation – but throughout the mobilisation period Oakwood has delivered a safe, secure and ordered regime.

“The Chief Inspector has made clear there is much more to do to achieve the high standards we expect but operating systems are now fully established and I am confident that the improvements will be achieved. We will work with G4S and continue to monitor performance at Oakwood closely over the coming months.”

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national prisons newspaper for England and Wales said the report was of such serious concern the prison should be be brought into the public sector.

“This is damning report on Oakwood Prison – and its got nothing at all to do with the fact that Oakwood has only been open a couple of years: G4S opened the very first private prison in the the UK over 20 years ago, if two decades experience isn’t enough to teach them about prison management then they have no right being involved in it at all.

“The safety and security failures at Oakwood are of such serious concern that unless the prison is drastically improved immediately Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, should exercise his powers to remove the prison from the management of G4S and bring it under the control of the public sector prison service.”