Alex Cavendish discusses a damning report on Wormwood Scrubs. Alex Cavendish is a former prisoner who blogs @ Prison UK: An Insider's View.
The Scrubs in London has been a byword for grim Victorian-era prisons, yet the latest HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) report has managed to exceed all expectations. From drugs and rampant rats to filthy wings and a pervasive climate of fear, HMP Wormwood Scrubs seems to have it all.
Just in case anyone doesn’t fancy trawling through the 120-odd pages of the inspectors’ grim report (read here), I have selected a just few of the choice highlights:
• Half of the prisoners felt unsafe, with many too afraid even to leave their cells
• Recorded assaults against staff and other prisoners had doubled
• Drugs were easily available, with 15 percent of prisoners failing mandatory drug test (MDTs), although there is no testing for new psychoactive substances (NPS)
• There was significant evidence of gang-related activity and debt
• The vast majority of inmates – 75 percent – were confined to their cells for 22 or more hours a day, while only 25 percent were engaged in activities.
• 600 prisoners out of 1,258 were unemployed
• Most prisoners had not been assigned an offender supervisor
• There was a backlog of risk assessments
|Broken window, broken system|
The report also highlights staff shortages and a toxic combination of poor relations between the prison management and the Prison Officers Association (POA) which have been involved in a bitter dispute over working practices. It is noted that attempts by the governor to sort out the daily regime (timetable) had been a source of friction and extended negotiations. Despite an eventual agreement between the two sides, even the revised schedule wasn’t being delivered consistently.
Against this backdrop, there was little incentive for prisoners to behave, not least because if they did get ‘nicked’ (put on a charge for breaching the prison rules) there was such a long backlog of governor’s adjudications that many charges had to be discontinued because the process simply ran out of time. Presumably some prisoners serving short sentences were actually released before they could attend an adjudication. In other words, the internal discipline system was basically a farce.
|Scrubs: not much rehabilitation here|
The report should also be a red flag for the current Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, since he has repeatedly stated that education should be at the heart of rehabilitation. According to HMIP, there has been deterioration in education, training and employment at Wormwood Scrubs.
In the interests of balance, it is only fair to note that in the latest report the chaplaincy is assessed as performing strongly, while mental health services are judged to be good. However, those are particularly noteworthy because of the abject shortcomings documented across the rest of the establishment.
|The Scrub's most contented inmates|
Of course, it is not alone. In the past two or three years there have been very few outstanding examples of successful establishments that are delivering against the Prison Service’s own targets. Most HMIP reports highlight a need for improvement, yet even by the generally dismal standards of prisons in England and Wales, Wormwood Scrubs is a genuine disaster area.
Ironically, according to the Guardian, a leaked earlier draft of this report was even more damning about the prison’s failings (read here). This raises potentially embarrassing questions about why the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke – a former senior police officer and the preferred candidate of Mr Gove – saw fit to tone down criticism of the Scrubs. This leak also suggests that someone inside the Inspectorate isn’t happy with the decision to water down the report’s conclusions, so perhaps future leaks may occur.
In these difficult times, a tame chief inspector could prove to be the undoing of the HMIP’s credibility. Unless the official watchdog barks loudly enough, those further up the food chain are unlikely to listen or take action.
|Watching the watchdogs|
Nevertheless, the report as it stands is a shocker. So why have things gone so badly wrong? Simply blaming antiquated Victorian-era buildings isn’t really an excuse. True, ageing, crumbling brickwork with bad drains and dodgy plumbing doesn’t make managing a prison any easier or cheaper, but relations between staff and inmates – and between frontline officers and senior management – are actually much more important, as is establishing a workable, dependable daily routine.
Prisoners are generally prepared to put up with grubby, dismal cells as long as they get time out from behind their doors to work (and earn a few pounds), attend the gym to let of some steam, get to the library and have visits from their families. Keep the regime running and cancelled activities to a minimum and most prisons can be kept on an even keel even when resources are scarce. Fail to achieve those objectives and any establishment – even a state of the art modern jail – can quickly descend into chaos, frustration and even serious violence. The acknowledged history of poor industrial relations between the POA and the prison management at the Scrubs suggests that, as is often the case, prisoners have been caught in the middle of a toxic dispute over working practices.
We have heard a great deal in recent months about Michael Gove’s reputation as a prison reformer. Even the prime minister has enthused about the need to sort out our failing, dysfunctional prisons. However, over 11 months into the current government’s mandate, the deep cracks are so evident at jails like Wormwood Scrubs that urgent action is needed to demonstrate all this talk of reform isn’t merely puffs of meaningless hot air from Westminster.
|Andrew Selous MP: in the firing line?|
Sadly, criticisms of this particular jail are nothing new. Back in September 2014 the Scrubs was condemned by the inspectorate as ‘filthy and unsafe’. Five prisoners had committed suicide there in 2013 alone. Yet two years on the situation has continued to deteriorate. Why? Is this the result of incompetent leadership at governor level or does the root of the malaise go far deeper - and higher?
It also raises the question as to why Andrew Selous MP, the prisons minister since July 2014, has not been summoned to Parliament to answer for this catalogue of institutional failure which has occurred – and is still occurring – on his watch as a junior minister. If any political head should roll over this shameful excuse for a prison, then Mr Selous would seem to be a prime candidate for the loss of his, followed by a swift return to the obscurity of the Tory back benches. Whether anyone else would step up to take on the poisoned chalice of our prisons is another question, but the time has surely come for someone in the Ministry of Justice to take responsibility?