HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes – where a “staggering” total of 19 men had taken their lives in seven years – was found by inspectors to be struggling to sustain improvement in care for vulnerable prisoners.
Inspectors also found “chronic and substantial” staff shortages. As a consequence, the prison ran a regime which meant many prisoners were locked up in their cells for long periods every day.
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned this severely limited regime risked undermining the work to improve care. “Incidents of self-harm remained high. Improvements had been made to the way prisoners at risk of self-harm were assessed and supported, but not all planned improvements had been sustained and we had real concerns that the poverty of regime had the potential to undermine the well-being of those at risk.”
Inspectors found, overall, a “decidedly mixed” picture at Woodhill – which holds just over 600 men as local prisoners, alongside a small number of high-security prisoners. The assessment of respect for prisoners in the jail was “reasonably good”, with mostly good living conditions. Rehabilitation and resettlement work was also “reasonably good.”
However, safety and purposeful activity, the other two “healthy prison” tests applied by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, were both assessed as poor, the lowest assessment. Both these aspects had deteriorated significantly since the previous inspection in 2015.
Mr Clarke said: “Underpinning nearly all the concerns raised in this report, including issues of safety and well-being, were chronic staff shortages and inexperience. This led to poor time out of cell, unpredictable daily routines and limited access to activity. From a staffing complement of 320 officers there were, at the time of the inspection, 55 vacancies, and 20% of officers in post had less than 12 months’ experience. Many prisoners expressed frustration at the apparent inability of staff to help them.
“During the working day we found half the population locked in their cells. Our colleagues in Ofsted judged the overall effectiveness of learning and skills provision to be ‘inadequate’, their lowest assessment and caused mainly by the underuse of available training and education resources owing to staff shortages.”
Inspectors found that Woodhill was “still not safe enough.” Though wings appeared to be relatively calm, nearly a third of prisoners said they currently felt unsafe and over half had felt unsafe at some point during their stay. Many prisoners reported victimisation and violence had increased – to levels greater than inspectors typically see in local prisons. Mr Clarke added: “We were concerned about the high number of assaults that had taken place against staff. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that this was related to the paucity of the regime on offer and the inconsistency of staff in their dealings with prisoners.”
Woodhill’s historical failure to implement recommendations from coroners and following Prisons and Probation Ombudsman inquiries into deaths had been the subject of repeated criticism, Mr Clarke said, “and had led to external scrutiny and analysis.”
Despite this, and work to improve care, “the number of self-inflicted deaths remained a huge concern”, Mr Clarke added. “At the time we inspected, eight prisoners had taken their own lives since our previous inspection in 2015 and, staggeringly, 19 prisoners had taken their own lives at the establishment since 2011. Tragically, a few months after this inspection another prisoner was reported to have taken his own life.”
Overall, Mr Clarke said:
“It was clear to us that some improvements had been made at Woodhill and the governor and her team had expended considerable effort, enthusiasm and commitment to promote a positive culture in the establishment. That said, a disappointingly small number of recommendations from our previous inspection had been achieved. The priorities for the prison were clear: to stabilise the regime through adequate staffing; to devise and implement a clear, evidenced-based strategy to improve safety; and to sustain and embed the work being done to reduce self-harm.”
Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said:
“Woodhill manages a complex and vulnerable population and the governor and her staff have worked tirelessly to improve support and care for prisoners and there were no self-inflicted deaths in 2017. Tragically there has been one self-inflicted death this year, but the prison remains focused on safety and supporting vulnerable men. Staffing vacancies have had an impact but we have a strong pipeline of new recruits which will significantly increase staffing in the coming months. This will improve the regime and mean more rehabilitative activity for prisoners.”
A copy of the full report, published on 19 June 2018, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at: www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons