Inspections of HMP Woodhill

The prison was given an inspection in  autumn 2015 , the full report can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

“HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes is a ‘core local’ prison, meaning that while the bulk of its population is a mixture of remanded and short sentenced men with all the mental health, substance misuse and other issues typical of local prisons, it also has a high security function for a small number of category A prisoners. The prison also incorporates a Close Supervision Centre (CSC) which is part of a national system for managing some of the most high-risk prisoners in the prison system. We inspect the CSC system separately and Woodhill’s CSC wings are therefore not included in this report. At the time of this inspection the prison held 692 men.

Previous inspections of HMP Woodhill have repeatedly raised concerns about the prison and, in particular, weaknesses in the support of men at risk of suicide or self-harm and the poor provision of purposeful activity. This inspection found real improvements had been made. Staffing levels were better than we often find elsewhere, although heavily reliant on detached duty and new recruits, and the prison’s leadership was effectively tackling some deep-rooted problems. Nevertheless, there was no room for complacency and we were concerned that more still needed to be done to reduce the likelihood of further self-inflicted deaths.

There had been five more self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection, making nine in total since 2012. This was an unacceptable toll. There was not a sufficiently whole-prison approach to understanding and addressing the contributory and preventive factors in prisoners’ overall experience in the prison and we identified a number of critical areas where improvement was required.

Early days in custody are a critical time and at Woodhill, as with other prisons, almost a quarter of prisoners told us they felt depressed or suicidal when they first arrived. Five of the nine deaths since 2012 had involved new arrivals who had been in the prison for less than two weeks – something we needed to point out to the prison. Too many prisoners arrived in the prison late in the evening, which disrupted reception and first night arrangements. This was not something the prison could control – it is a concern we have raised in many inspections and requires action from the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and the courts service to resolve. Once in the prison, reception processes were efficient but the role of the first night centre (FNC) was undermined because it was also used to hold prisoners who were difficult to locate elsewhere due to their offence or disputes with other prisoners. Conversely, some prisoners requiring opiate substitution treatment or alcohol detoxification were mistakenly placed in the FNC rather than the specialist stabilisation unit. This was particularly dangerous for prisoners requiring alcohol detoxification who would not get the regular observation they needed on the FNC, and it raised concerns about what other risks were missed. Too many first night cells were dirty and poorly equipped. On a midmorning visit to the FNC, we met a recalled prisoner who had finally arrived in the first night centre at about 9pm the evening before and had been locked in a shabby cell with missing equipment since. He seemed OK – but his experience was typical, and in other circumstances a mix of distress at being recalled, the bleakness of his surroundings and lack of support could have been much more serious; indeed, in some cases it had been.

Recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following previous deaths in custody, such as the need to improve the quality of assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management documentation for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm, had not been implemented with sufficient rigour. The support given was often better than the records showed and prisoners we spoke to who had been identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm told us they felt well cared for. There were not enough Listeners (prisoners trained by the Samaritans to provide confidential emotional support to fellow prisoners). Cell call bells were not answered quickly enough and night-time checks were done at predictable times and could have been easily circumvented by a prisoner intent on harming himself.

Forty per cent of prisoners told us they had emotional well-being or mental health problems but only 36% told us they were receiving support for these problems. Mental health services had been hit by staff shortages. Waits to see the mental health team were too long and there were very long waits for prisoners who needed a transfer under the Mental Health Act. Only 18% of residential staff had received mental health awareness training in the last three years and staff told us they felt ill equipped to deal with prisoners with mental health problems.

The prison felt calm – and it was an establishment where most prisoners who kept their heads down and avoided debt and drugs could stay out of trouble. However, a sizeable minority – one in five prisoners – told us they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection, and levels of violence were higher than elsewhere and included some serious assaults on prisoners and staff. The response to these incidents was mixed and the prison did not have sufficient understanding of the underlying causes and trends to inform a more effective strategic response. Security arrangements were generally appropriate for the population but links between the security and safer custody departments were not well coordinated. Tobacco and other debt was the cause of much of the violence but drug availability was lower than we have seen elsewhere, although the prison needed to be alert to the increasing availability of the new psychoactive substance Spice. The high levels of violence were behind the high numbers of adjudications and use of force by staff, and we found that these processes were generally used appropriately. The environment in the segregation unit had improved since the last inspection and staff worked well with some very complex prisoners.

The external environment was good but the conditions in cells were more mixed. Prisoners experienced problems getting hold of basic kit such as clothing and cell furniture. Relationships between staff and prisoners were, with some exceptions, also good. In our survey prisoners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds reported more negatively than the population as a whole and there was inadequate consultation with them, and other prisoners with protected characteristics, to understand and address concerns. Faith provision was very good. Physical health services and substance misuse services were generally good.

Purposeful activity was where most impressive progress had been made. Time out of cell was reasonable for most prisoners, although more who had legitimate reasons for not being at work could have been allowed out of their cells for longer during the day. The management of learning and skills was good and the amount of activity available had improved significantly. The provision of sufficient and appropriate activity for short-term prisoners was an example other local prisons could follow. Activities were intelligently geared to the labour markets in the areas to which most prisoners would be returning. The quality of teaching and learning had improved and there was good emphasis on helping prisoners improve their literacy and numeracy. Success rates were high and punctuality and attendance were good.

The prison had a complex resettlement task. It held high-risk prisoners who needed sophisticated risk assessment and offender management processes and short-term prisoners who needed the timely provision of practical support. Matters were further complicated because two new community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) had recently begun work in the prison to cater for prisoners from different parts of the country, and each used different processes. Not surprisingly there was some confusion among staff and prisoners about what was provided and some prisoners did not have an adequate sentence plan. Nevertheless, there had been progress in reducing backlogs in risk assessments and sentence planning and some good individual work was being done. Public protection arrangements were good. Despite the complexity of the new arrangements, most practical resettlement services were good and there had been improvements in helping prisoners in the crucial areas of accommodation and employment. Family work was also good.

HMP Woodhill is an improving prison and its very good purposeful activity and good rehabilitation services are better than we have seen recently in many other local prisons. Good outcomes in these areas help to create a sense of purpose and hope and reduce frustration and tension. Despite this, levels of violence are a significant concern and the number of self-inflicted deaths in recent years has been unacceptably high. The main priority of the prison must be to tackle these two areas.

Martin Lomas                          January 2016

HM Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons”

Return to Woodhill

To read the full reports, go to the Ministry of Justice site or follow the links below:

  • HMP Woodhill Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Woodhill (14 – 25 September 2015)
  • Protected witness unit at HMP Woodhill Report on an unannounced inspection of the protected witness unit at HMP Woodhill (13 – 14 July 2015)
  • HMP Woodhill Unannounced inspection of HMP Woodhill (13 – 24 January 2014)
  • HMP Woodhill Unannounced inspection of HMP Woodhill (3 – 13 January 2012)
  • HMP Woodhill Unannounced full follow-up inspection of HMP Woodhill (16-20 November 2009)
  • HMP Woodhill Full announced inspection of HMP Woodhill (3-7 September 2007)