HMP Oakwood, Inspections

The prison was given an inspection in late 2014. The full report can be read by following the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

“HMP Oakwood is a private category C training prison and designated resettlement prison near Wolverhampton, run by G4S. At the time of this inspection it held 1,557 adult men. The prison has attracted significant criticism since it opened in April 2012. We were very concerned by what we found at the previous inspection in June 2013 and outcomes against all our healthy prison tests were either not sufficiently good or poor.

At the time many staff were inexperienced and lacked confidence and there were dangerously high levels of frustration among prisoners. However, a new director had just taken over and had made a good analysis of what needed to be done. To drive the improvement we thought was necessary we gave notice to the prison that we would be returning much more quickly than usual. This announced inspection just eighteen months later found that real attention had been paid to our recommendations and, while much remained to do, excellent leadership by the director and hard work by all staff had delivered significant improvement. We were confident that progress was sustainable and there were credible plans for further improvement in future.

The prison was much calmer than before, overall levels of violence had reduced and most prisoners felt safe. Management of safety had improved and prisoners demonstrated their increased confidence by a greater willingness to report incidents. There were very good initiatives such as the ‘basic intervention group’, which used prisoner mentors to help those on the basic level of the incentives and earned privileges scheme to improve their behaviour, and the Cordial group, which helped to support prisoners who were victims or isolated. There were still high levels of bullying, often related to the availability of so-called ‘legal highs’ such as Black Mamba and associated debt, particularly on Ash wing. Ash wing held a difficult mix of prisoners who were vulnerable, some because of their offence and many because of drug-debt or other problems on the main wings; allocation policies for this wing were poor. Support for prisoners with substance abuse issues was very good and a wide range of therapeutic interventions was available.

There had been no self-inflicted deaths at the establishment. However, the number of self-harm incidents and the number of prisoners on assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm was high. The quality of documentation and care was not always adequate. A large number of prisoners on ACCTs were held in the segregation unit and we were not assured there were the exceptional reasons required to justify this.

Our greatest concern was the high levels of use of force which was almost double that of similar prisons. Scrutiny of individual incidents was insufficient and we were concerned by some of the incidents we reviewed and brought these to the attention of the director. Some complaints about excessive use of force had not been investigated. A high proportion of these incidents took place in the segregation unit which held some very challenging men. Staff in the unit had not been adequately trained for the role.

The overall environment remained very good. Most prisoners had single cells with integral showers and sanitation, and phones from which they could make outgoing calls at their own expense to an approved list of numbers. Kiosks on the wings enabled them to deal with many administrative tasks, such as booking visits, electronically. As staff had become more experienced, relationships between staff and prisoners had much improved. Managers had moved out of the administration area and were now based on the wings. Most of the difficulties prisoners had had at the previous inspection about getting access to basic domestic items and cleaning materials had been resolved. The very good prisoner-run Resettlement Advice Line and Prisoner Helpline (RALPH), which prisoners could contact from phones in their cells, dealt with many issues quickly and efficiently. As a consequence complaints had reduced, but responses still required improvement.

Consultation arrangements were generally good and the prisoner council was effective, but prisoners from black and minority ethnic groups and Muslim prisoners were less positive than the population as a whole and more needed to be done to understand their concerns. Equality and diversity management overall was reasonable and there was better support for older and disabled prisoners. Good use was made of volunteer prisoner carers but these roles needed to be formalised to ensure neither party was exploited.

Health services, about which we had been very concerned at the last inspection, had also much improved but were affected by staffing shortages. The identification and management of prisoners with complex health needs was very good. Weaknesses in pharmacy arrangements had been addressed and the management of divertible medication had improved. There was insufficient mental health provision to meet the needs of the population and transfers to external mental health facilities took too long.

At the last inspection we were very critical of the lack of purposeful activity for prisoners. At this inspection, most prisoners were employed full time and most had a good amount of time out of their cell. We found 18% of prisoners locked in their cells during the working day; this was still too high but an improvement on the 37% at our last inspection. Ofsted found that the overall effectiveness of learning and skills had improved. The prison was working hard and persuasively to improve further, but at the time of this inspection it was still a work in progress. Too many prisoners were employed in mundane and undemanding wing jobs, the quality of teaching remained too variable and rates of progress and achievement were not good enough. However, many prisoners were usefully employed in a range of innovative and skilled mentoring roles, although too few of these offered formal training and accreditation. The library was a good resource but underused and there was good PE provision, although not enough for the size of the population.

Resettlement services had also improved and now compared well with similar establishments. Offender management and contact with prisoners were good, but hindered by inadequate communication from community-based offender managers. RALPH, the prisoner-run helpline, and prisoner resettlement workers provided provide quick resolutions to many resettlement queries, but some of the confidential information prisoners were asked to share with these peer workers was inappropriate. Most practical resettlement services were effective. Innovative work was carried out outside of the prison to improve the transition of care for prisoners with substance misuse problems and to support their families. Education, training and employment work required improvement. Family work was very good and the development of Elm wing as a family unit, though still at an early stage, was very promising.

HMP Oakwood has turned the corner. There is more to do but the determined way the director and staff have made improvements following significant criticism should be acknowledged. 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 the lessons learned are factored into plans for the opening of other new establishments. 

Nick Hardwick                                   February 2015

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Oakwood

To read the full report go to the Ministry of Justice web site or click here: