There are still high levels of bullying at the country’s largest prison, near Wolverhampton, and the use of force is almost double that of similar institutions, a report has found.
Inspectors said the G4S-run HMP Oakwood, which received a damning report two years ago, also has a high number of self-harm incidents.
But HM Inspectorate of Prisons said there have since been “significant improvements” at the prison, which opened in 2012, with the overall level of violence falling and a much “calmer” environment.
In 2013 the category C prison which houses more than 1,500 men was the scene of rooftop protests, while last year there were claims of a “cover up” after trouble broke out on one wing and took nine hours to be resolved.
The findings of the latest inspection, which took place in December, are being published on Wednesday and show general improvements, some of which are attributed to staff becoming more experienced leading to improved relationships between the prisoners and those who work there.
While health services have also improved inspectors said they had been affected by staff shortages.
The report also found that although support for those with substance abuse issues is “very good”, the high levels of bullying are often related to the availability of legal highs and associated debt.
Chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick said the prison’s difficulties could provide lessons for the future as other establishments are opened.
“There is more to do but the determined way the director and staff have made improvements following significant criticism should be acknowledged,” he said.
“However, the difficulties Oakwood and other new prisons experienced immediately after opening resulted in unacceptable risks and very poor outcomes for the prisoners held at that time. There are plans to open a number of large establishments in the coming years.
“I recommend that ministers undertake and publish a review of the difficulties Oakwood and other new prisons experienced after they opened, and ensure that lessons learned are factored into plans for the opening of other new establishments.”
Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said: “I am pleased that the chief inspector has highlighted the significant improvements that have taken place at Oakwood.
“There are challenges involved in opening any new prison and the lessons learnt are always carefully assessed to improve any future processes.
“The director and his staff deserve real credit for their work to establish a safe and decent regime through a strong commitment to reducing violence, supporting vulnerable prisoners and providing better work, training and resettlement opportunities.
“There is still more work to do and the recommendations from this inspection will be used to build on the recent improvements.”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “After its first few turbulent years, it’s good to hear that HMP Oakwood has turned the corner at last and is now a safer, more settled establishment.
“Before government races to open more giant jails at rock bottom rates, there are important lessons to learn about the harm done by filling prison places too rapidly, taking on so many inexperienced staff and failing to provide a constructive regime.”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: “It is welcome news that conditions have improved slightly at Oakwood since the last dreadful inspection took place, but there is still a long way to go until it is up to the standard taxpayers expect of a state of the art prison.
“David Cameron’s Government rushed to award the contract for running this prison to G4S and then pressed the jail into service before it and its prison officers were ready to cope with inmates. This led to many prisoners being released without being rehabilitated properly.
“Given the Government’s plans to push ahead with a super prison in Wrexham, it’s absolutely crucial that the same mistakes aren’t repeated and public safety is not put at risk.”
Jerry Petherick, managing director of G4S custodial and detention services, said: “opening any prison is a complex process and our experience shows that it takes time to develop the experience of staff, fully embed the prison regime and establish links with local partner agencies.
“Today’s report recognises that the hard work of our team at HMP Oakwood is paying off with inspectors finding that the prison has ‘turned the corner’ and expressing confidence in our plans for the future.
“I am particularly encouraged that inspectors acknowledge the innovative programmes we have introduced to work with prisoners to help them confront their negative behaviour and improve safety.
“There is still work to do but we are confident that our investment in technology, infrastructure and training for prison custody officers will continue to strengthen our performance.
“We are committed to working with the Ministry of Justice, local agencies and partners from across the criminal justice system so that the prisoners at Oakwood are better equipped to turn away from crime when they leave.”