A very critical report
The latest prison inspectors’ report on Wormwood Scrubs (published on 12 April 2016) is deeply concerning.
The inspectors’ own summary is damning:
The inspection of HMP Wormwood Scrubs took place 18 months after the last inspection, when inspectors also had serious concerns. The prison remained in a poor condition with unacceptably poor outcomes for the 1,258 men held, with much too little done to address their behaviour before they returned to the community.
And the actual state of the prison may be even worse — according to a Guardian article, the criticisms in the published version were toned down considerably from earlier drafts. This seems to me to be entirely credible, since the introduction is dated January 2016 and publication was three months later.
The new Chief Inspector, Peter Clarke, highlights a number of disturbing issues in his introduction; the bullet points below are all direct quotes:
- Progress had been severely hindered by very poor industrial relations at the prison. There were staff shortages and the main union was opposed to the staffing arrangements for an improved regime the governor had wanted to introduce.
- Prisoners’ poor experiences started on arrival at the prison.
- Half the prisoners in our survey told us they had felt unsafe at some time in the prison and one in five told us they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. The number of assaults on prisoners and staff was double that at similar prisons and at the time of the last inspection.
- Almost two out of five prisoners told us it was easy to get drugs in the prison and one in five that it was easy to get alcohol – both were much higher than in comparable prisons and than at the last inspection.
- The regime was generally so poor for everyone that the incentives and earned privileges schemes provided little encouragement for good behaviour and the number of formal adjudications was so high that many failed because they could not be heard before they were out of time.
- Levels of use of force were far higher than in similar prisons, oversight was poor and we were not assured its use was always proportionate.
- Many prisoners spent almost all day, and ate their unappetising meals, doubled up in a dirty, damaged cell with an unscreened toilet.
- The prison had a significant rat problem; we saw them every day and night we visited the prison and a large rats’ nest was very obvious in the grounds.
- Most prisoners still had less than two hours a day out of their cells and we found more than half the population locked behind their doors during the working day.
- Offender management and resettlement services were also poor. Staff shortages meant that most prisoners did not have an offender supervisor and there was a large backlog of risk assessments.
- The prison’s own data suggested that since the new community rehabilitation company had taken over resettlement services, the proportion of prisoners who had accommodation on release had fallen from 95% to 60%.
I could find only two positive comments which pay tribute to the staff concerned working in such a hostile work environment:
- Health services were reasonable and mental health services were a good and much needed strength of the prison.
- Some resettlement services, such as substance misuse support and family support, were good,
Transforming Rehabilitation and offender accommodation
Some of the coverage of the inspection report focused on the impact of the probation reforms with new private companies — in the case of Wormwood Scrubs, this is the London Community Rehabilitation Company run by MTCnovo — responsible for resettlement plans.
Concern focused on paragraph 4.35 in the inspection report:
The proportion of prisoners recorded by the prison as having accommodation on discharge had fallen dramatically in recent months, from 95.3% in April 2015 to 59.4% in October 2015.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this finding and the inspectors reported that the prison itself was “unable to explain this fall”.
The probation reforms, known as Transforming Rehabilitation (TR), have been messy and plagued by difficulties with increasing concerns about the high level of job cuts across the country.
It is clear that the new “through-the-gate” model of co-ordinated support is nowhere near working properly yet in most areas.
However, given that pre-TR probation trusts were not working with short-term prisoners (those serving less than 12 months) who form the majority of the Scrubs’ population, it seems unlikely that TR is the main cause of this drop.
In my experience of conducting a number of prison-based needs assessments, prison records routinely over-record the proportion of released prisoners going out to settled accommodation.
What is not in doubt is that the always difficult business of finding prisoners proper housing on release is getting increasingly difficult.
On the same day as the Wormwood Scrubs inspection was published, so was an inspection of the women’s prison HMP Bronzefield. By contrast, this inspection was extremely positive. Even so, it highlighted the fact that some released prisoners were being given tents and sleeping bags because of a lack of an appropriate accommodation on release.
Michael Gove will need to address this issue in particular if he wants to make good on his promise to treat prisoners as “assets not liabilities”.
Few of us are able to lead a constructive, law-abiding lifestyle without a proper roof over our heads.