HMP Oakwood, one of the largest prisons in the country, was found by inspectors to be an “impressive institution” despite dealing with problems of drugs and violence and a large population of men, 60% of whom posed a serious risk of harm.

The prison, near Wolverhampton, managed by the private contractor G4S, held 2,071 adult prisoners at the time of the inspection in February and March 2018. Over half were serving sentences of more than four years, and 400 over 10 years. Around 150 men were serving indeterminate or life sentences. A quarter of the population were convicted sex offenders.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “We found Oakwood to be an impressive institution…(Our) assessments were consistent with a story of steady and sustained improvement after what was a testing start six years ago, and this despite risks represented by the size of the population and inherent risks posed by those held.”

It was undeniable, Mr Clarke added, that violence had increased, though it was now at a level commensurate with similar prisons. Prisoners reported raised levels of victimisation but, balanced against this, relatively few prisoners reported feeling unsafe and the prison’s response to violence “was robust and multi-layered.” The use of prisoners as “peer workers” to support violence reduction was creative and extensive although, Mr Clarke said, “we emphasised, and the prison understood, that the need to ensure the most thorough governance of such schemes was vital.”

A quarter of assaults on staff were classed as serious and the use of force by staff had increased substantially. Mr Clarke said: “Staff did not always possess sufficient confidence in the de-escalation of incidents. This was a significant failing that required urgent attention.” Overall, inspectors found a high staff turnover and a large proportion of relatively new and inexperienced staff.

The main threat to the stability of the prison was drugs. The use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) had peaked in 2017 and well over half of prisoners surveyed suggested drugs were easily available in the prison. The report noted that the rise in violence reflected a surge in the use of NPS. Mr Clarke added, however, that there were early signs that actions to reduce drug availability were beginning to be effective.

Inspectors found that almost 1,000 prisoners lived in overcrowded conditions, in cells designed for one. Mr Clarke said: “The implications and potential risks of this level of overcrowding are clear, but our findings with respect to the general living conditions experienced by individuals and their access to basic amenities were very good, in some cases excellent, and contributed greatly to a positive sense of community.”

Most prisoners had very good access to activity and time out of cell. The leadership and management of learning and skills provision was judged by Ofsted inspectors to be ‘outstanding’. Though rehabilitation and release work was assessed as reasonably good overall, inspectors found that that not all prisoners, even those posing a high risk, were supported by robust risk management plans to support their safe release into the community.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This inspection of Oakwood was tremendously encouraging. The sustained improvement we have seen had much to do with the consistent, capable and courageous leadership we observed, principally from the director but also others including the Oakwood staff. Oakwood is not an easy prison to run and presents many risks. Some of the initiatives we have seen, notably the extensive use of peer support, can go badly wrong if they are not constantly attended to. That said, the empowerment of prisoners represented by such schemes had contributed greatly to a culture of decency and respect that was enabling prisoners to contribute and invest in the well-being of others as well as themselves.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, said:

“I am very pleased that the Chief Inspector has recognised the high quality of the services at Oakwood and the sustained improvement across a wide range of areas since the last inspection. Oakwood is a well-led establishment and has built good staff-prisoner relationships and mobilised extensive use of peer support amongst prisoners to nurture a culture of decency and respect. We will agree an action plan with G4S to address the Inspectorate’s important recommendations, with particular focus on improving the care and support of those vulnerable to self-harm and suicide and building on the action underway to counter the misuse of drugs.”

A copy of the full report, published on 10 July 2018, can be found here: