May 21 2024
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The Dickensian disaster of Wormwood Scrubs

The Dickensian disaster of Wormwood Scrubs


HMP Wormwood Scrubs (David Merrigan, Flickr)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. Photo by David Merrigan from Flickr.

By any standards this is a failing prison in crisis and the report highlights some of the reasons for the culture of idleness, violence and squalor that would not be unfamiliar to Charles Dickens himself. In fact, some of these revelations might have actually managed to shock him, especially the violence, idleness and easily availability of drugs and illicit alcohol behind bars.

Just in case anyone doesn’t fancy trawling through the 120-odd pages of the inspectors’grim report, 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% of prisoners failing mandatory drug test, although there is no testing for new psychoactive substances;
  • There was significant evidence of gang-related activity and debt;
  • The vast majority of inmates (75%) were confined to their cells for 22 or more hours a day, while only 25% were engaged in activities;
  • 600 prisoners out of 1,258 were unemployed;
  • Most prisoners had not been assigned an offender supervisor; and
  • There was a backlog of risk assessments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the physical conditions of the prison are poor and the place is infested by rats. The endless litany of structural problems includes broken windows in which paper had been stuffed in a bid to keep out the wind and rain. Prisoners at risk of suicide were being held in cells with jagged glass shards from shattered panes easily accessible, an invitation to disaster if ever these was one.

Toxic relationship
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.

It is also of concern that support for any meaningful rehabilitation or resettlement was noted as being very poor. Despite repeated warnings about the risks of privatising much of the Probation Service, the former Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, went ahead regardless. If proof were needed that the resulting Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) just don’t deliver, then the evidence is here in this report. Formerly, 95% of prisoners being released from the Scrubs had some form of accommodation to go to. Now the figure has fallen to 60%. Given that stable accommodation is universally recognised as a vital factor in reducing reoffending, this should be of concern to everyone.

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.

Sexing down
No-one who knows anything about our penal system is under any illusions that Cat-B local prisons are easy to manage. They aren’t. By their very nature they have a continually changing population of prisoners (some on remand, many convicted) who arrive directly from the courts, bringing with them a wide variety of problems, including drug and alcohol dependencies and mental health problems, many undiagnosed. Some new receptions will just be starting long sentences, with all the tensions and frustrations that usually involves. However, the Scrubs seems to be trapped in a culture of institutional failure.

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.

There were already serious concerns that the HMIP under Mr Clarke might be more ‘accommodating’ to the government’s political sensitivities than it was during the tenure of his predecessor Nick Hardwick. The charge of ‘sexing down’ the report is a serious one and some explanation will be required.

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

Moreover, surely someone needs to be held accountable for the deplorable state our prisons have been permitted to descend into. No amount of pious platitudes from ministers, or from Michael Spurr, the head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is going to fix this mess. Action is required now.

Questions to answer
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?