HMP Wandsworth in south London was found by inspectors to be one of the most overcrowded jails in England and Wales and filled with many men with drug or mental health problems receiving poor training and education.
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that at the time of the inspection, in February and March 2018, 36% of the 1,428 men in the Victorian-era jail were receiving psychosocial help for substance misuse problems, 40% said it was easy to get illicit drugs, and 450 referrals were made to the mental health team each month.
“Meanwhile, 42% of the men were locked in their cells during the working day and this was no doubt, at least in part, because there were only enough full-time activity places for around a third of the population.”
“There were too many prisoners, many with drug-related or mental health issues, and with not enough to do. This is of course an all too familiar story, but it must not be forgotten that more than 100 prisoners every month were being released into the community. How much better could their prospects, and those of the communities into which they were released, have been if their time in prison had been spent in more decent conditions?”
Inspectors found a “long-standing culture of not recording or analysing data to understand what was happening and to drive improvement” and “an obvious gap between the intentions of senior managers and what was actually happening on the wings.”
Inspectors also discovered the prison had stopped using X-ray body scanners to detect contraband for “unclear legal reasons”.
Inspectors said psychoactive substances and cannabis were “too accessible” at the south-west London prison and existing security technology was not used effectively, the assessment found.
“For example, the X-ray scanner in reception was no longer used and the CCTV cameras in visits were not monitored as a result, we were told, of a lack of staff,” it said.
The X-ray scanner had been used previously and was an effective way of identifying contraband, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) said.
However, Mr Clarke said, it was good that the senior team saw a recent influx of new staff “in an unequivocally positive light” – not as a challenge but as giving a real opportunity to improve, bringing a new and fresh culture into the prison.
“That cultural change is needed cannot be doubted. Despite six self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection, it was concerning to find that not all staff were carrying anti-ligature knives, that no staff would enter a cell alone – even if a prisoner’s life was in danger – and that the response to cell call bells was totally inadequate. This latter point was not due to a lack of staff,” Mr Clarke said.
“I personally saw cell call bells going unanswered while groups of prison officers were gathered in wing offices and not responding…Clearly, not every use of a cell bell is properly justified, but the apparent assumption by staff that they were being misused and therefore did not warrant a response is dangerous. At the very least there should be a proper strategy to triage response and deal with regular misuse.”
Many men shared cells designed for one prisoner, with poorly screened lavatories, and were confined in them for far too long each day – though a refurbishment programme was underway “which, while it would not in itself reduce overcrowding, would at least make living conditions a little more acceptable.” Mr Clarke said the necessary change of culture also extended “to developing an intolerance on the part of both staff and prisoners to dirt and grime.”
Inspectors noted that anti-corruption prevention work had improved and had led to the identification of alleged illegal activities by staff which were now subject to ongoing prosecutions. Searches in the six months prior to the inspection had found 277 mobile phones, 65 weapons and 153 drugs packages. However, inspectors could not get a clear explanation of why an x-ray body scanner – which prisoners preferred to strip-searching – had fallen into disuse.
On a more positive note, inspectors assessed rehabilitation and release work as reasonably good, with generally well-managed public protection procedures and improved use of home detention curfew (HDC) as part of preparing men for release.
Overall, Mr Clarke said:
“It was quite clear that there was a very real determination on the part of many dedicated staff at Wandsworth to make positive progress at this well-known and important prison. The influx of new staff is a real opportunity, and it is vital that the governor should be fully supported both from within the prison and by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) more broadly as she embarks on what she describes as ‘the long journey’ of improvement at the establishment.”
Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said:
“We have already provided extra staff and resources to Wandsworth knowing it faced significant challenges and I’m pleased that inspectors found that they are having an impact. We’ve reduced the prison’s capacity to ease pressure and enable much-needed refurbishment, and new staff are helping to drive improvements along with continued investment and support from our central teams. The prison is also strengthening its approach to preventing self-harm and suicide. The Governor has put in place a plan to ensure conditions improve, informed by the Inspectorate’s recommendations, and she has our full backing.”
Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales said: “Wandsworth, like Manchester, Durham, and Dartmoor, are all prisons where there has been an ingrained brutal staff culture for decades and no matter how much money you throw at a prison you can’t change that overnight.
“The influx of new staff is welcome, both in terms of numbers and the fresh pair of eyes they bring with them – but its vital that they are not infected by the very culture whose tide they are expected to try and change.
A copy of the full report, published on 13 July 2018, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at: www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons