HMP ONLEY: A chaotic, fundamentally unsafe, prison locked in a battle with drugs and violence.

Click to Enlarge

“This is a truly shocking report of a prison in complete chaos and in danger of flipping into self-destruct – the lack of Urgent Notification from the Prisons Inspectorate is frankly bewildering.”
Mark Leech

UPDATE:  Mark Leech: Following publication of this post today, and my comments at the bottom of it, I received a juvenile email from the Chief Communications Officer at The Prisons Inspectorate – you can read it, and my reply, here


HMP Onley, a training prison in Warwickshire with 80% of its population from London, is “fundamentally unsafe” with high levels of drugs and violence.

When the Prisons Inspectorate last inspected HMP Onley in 2016 they made 70 recommendations overall. The prison fully accepted 53 of the recommendations and partially (or subject to resources) accepted 16. It rejected one of the recommendations.

At this follow-up inspection in November 2018 – two years later – the Prison Inspectorate found that the prison had achieved 24 of those recommendations, and not achieved 46 recommendations.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the prison had been assessed as ‘poor’ for safety – the lowest assessment – at the previous inspection in 2016.

Click to Enlarge

When inspectors visited in November 2018, Mr Clarke added, it was “particularly disappointing” to find Onley was still fundamentally unsafe.   “Time and again we find that prisons which are unsafe will struggle to make progress in other areas, and HMP Onley was no exception.”

Click to Enlarge

The lack of safety was “all too obvious”. The report noted that the reception wing was chaotic and “new arrivals, still carrying their property and stood in the busy corridor, were approached and faced predation by more experienced prisoners.”

 Mr Clarke added: “Perhaps it is not surprising that in our survey only 62% of prisoners said they felt safe on the first night. Sadly, their feelings were an all too accurate reflection of what life in Onley would be like during their time there.”

The prevalence of illicit drugs played a major role in causing destabilising factors such as violence, debt, bullying and health emergencies. During the previous three months there had been 200 emergency health calls related to the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS). “Despite this, we found that far too little was being done to obstruct the flow of drugs into the jail.”

Violence was higher than at similar category C prisons and although prisoner-on-prisoner assaults had decreased since 2016, assaults on staff had more than doubled. Far too many prisoners were self-isolating – refusing to come out of their cells or to go to education, work and training. The prison believed much of the violence was gang-related.

Mr Clarke said: “HMP Onley was a clear example of where the failure to deal with drugs and violence undermined many other aspects of prison life. There was a vicious circle where fear, frustration and boredom increased the demand for drugs, which in turn fuelled the violence.

“In order for Onley to break out of this circle, there must obviously be more effective action taken to reduce violence and the availability of drugs. But at the same time, more can be done in other areas.”

Rubbish was consistently thrown from cells windows and, the report noted, “there were problems with rats, and recent attempts to control the infestation had left some dying in wall cavities and vents, leaving an intolerable smell in some cells.” Accommodation on Onley’s newer wings was better than on its “shabby, cramped” older wings.

Onley was a training prison without enough activity places for the population, and during the inspection only 50% of prisoners were engaged in purposeful activity at any one time. Some 39% of prisoners were locked in their cells during the working day – far too high a proportion for a training prison. Extensive PE facilities were underused by the prison population, which was predominantly young, with around 60% from a black and minority ethnic background.

Inspectors noted that the prison had run a restricted daily regime for more than four years because of chronic staff shortages, though this was gradually being addressed.

Click to Enlarge

Mr Clarke said: “There can also be little doubt that doing more to support family relationships would help prisoners rehabilitate and prepare for their eventual release.” The report noted that Onley was in a remote location but there was no transport for families from local stations.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“I would not wish to detract from the many good things being delivered by dedicated and skilful staff. Health care, education, training, industry and offender management leading to release were all areas where there was some very good provision. Sadly, Onley will fail to fulfil its role as a training and resettlement prison until it can deal with the inextricably linked blights of drugs and violence.”

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

“Tackling drugs and violence at Onley is our top priority and, while challenging, significant efforts have been made to drive improvement. These have included a major recruitment drive, with 30% more officers soon to be in place compared to 2018, along with additional security measures such as mail scanners, while a new drug recovery unit is due to open this spring. As the Chief Inspector makes clear, despite the difficulties there is good work going on at Onley to help prisoners turn their lives around and reduce the risk of reoffending on release.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales said the report showed “a prison in complete chaos”.

Mr Leech writes:

This is a truly shocking report of a prison in complete chaos and in danger of flipping into self-destruct – the lack of Urgent Notification from the Prisons Inspectorate at Onley is frankly bewildering.

Onley is a fundamentally unsafe prison, previous recommendations on safety, decency, and respect have been ignored wholescale.

Drugs and violence have taken control, and Onley ticks all the Urgent Notification boxes – yet the Prisons Inspectorate has failed yet again to activate a procedure designed for exactly these kind of situations.

I have heard it suggested elsewhere that political pressure was placed on the Prisons Inspectorate to ‘give it a rest’ and not to activate the Urgent Notification procedure ‘for a while’, after four in a row were bowled stump high at the Justice Secretary last year – true or not, if Onley doesn’t meet the test for the Urgent Notification procedure, then I’d like someone to tell me exactly what does.

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales
@prisonsorguk