Signs of improvement at Wormwood Scrubs but serious problems still remain

Wormwood Scrubs Prison suffered from a chaotic regime during the latter half of 2015. Since January 2016 however there has been a strong and concerted effort within the prison management to improve standards. There were signs by the end of the year that those efforts were beginning to bear fruit but many serious problems remain to be addressed.

The Board’s Annual Report, which relates to the period from 1 June 2015 to 31 May 2016, describes a chaotic first half to the reporting year. The year began with the prison subject to an emergency regime, under which half of the prisoners (approximately 600) were confined to their cells for about 23 hours a day during weekdays. An initial plan to relax the regime for some 300 of those prisoners encountered opposition from the Prison Officers Association (POA) over staff working conditions. Threatened industrial action was averted following negotiations conducted directly between the POA and the National Offender Management Service but in the process the plan was shelved, and subsequently the Governor of the prison resigned. In November 2015 HM Inspectorate of Prisons carried out an inspection and issued its own scathing report on conditions within the prison.

A new Governor was appointed in December. There were numerous serious deficiencies to be dealt with, over and above the restricted regime:

  • The Prison Service was not providing enough supplies of basic items such as underwear, kettles and simple furniture.
  • The contracted works provider Carillion had failed to curb the widespread rat infestation.
  • Prisoners coming into the prison after 7pm did not always see a doctor on the day of arrival, and those at risk from drug or alcohol withdrawal did not always go straight to the detoxification unit or receive necessary medication on their first night.
  • An insufficient number of training and work places were being provided and those that were available often went unfilled for lack of staff escorts. The library was hardly used.
  • Prisoners’ hospital appointments were being cancelled owing to the unavailability of staff escorts.
  • The prison’s internal complaints system was overloaded and had a huge backlog of complaints.
  • There were severe delays in processing applications for early release on the Home Detention Curfew (‘tagging’) scheme.
  • Prisoners awaiting release were not being helped with their accommodation needs and the service offered to the prison by the Community Rehabilitation Company was generally inadequate.

The Report notes that since January 2016 there has been a concerted effort at several levels of the prison’s management to address many critical areas of concern. Notably, the daily regime has improved, with prisoners on all wings now normally having longer periods of free association, exercise and access to the gym. Attention has also been focussed on prisoner safety, particularly on those prisoners at risk of self-harm who are subject to ACCT (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) monitoring; and on improving attendance on education and activity places. But many old problems persist, and new ones have emerged: there was a disappointing 13% increase in the use of force in the last reporting quarter; and on one day in May 2016 some of the workforce withdrew from the prison citing concerns for their own safety because of the number of parcels containing drugs and weapons being found in the prison grounds.

The Board notes with deep regret that there were five deaths in custody during the reporting year.