July 13 2024
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‘Britain’s worst prison’ is far from an outlier in a ‘nasty, cruel, violent’ system

‘Britain’s worst prison’ is far from an outlier in a ‘nasty, cruel, violent’ system

Prisoners return from their jobs to their wings for lunch at Wandsworth prison..HMP Wandsworth in South West London was built in 1851 and is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.

The overcrowding crisis in our prisons is about to reach a dangerous zenith, as the Prison Governors Association considers taking legal action against the government in response to the impending disaster.

But this peak of overcrowding conceals a much deeper issue. For what purpose are people sent to prison? How should they be treated once they’re there? Do prisons work?

Jack Sheard examines the issues that plague the UK’s prison estate.

People are sent to prisons as punishment. They are not sent to prisons to be punished. The refusal to appreciate this distinction has led to a fundamental moral failure.

Once it is established that a prisoner deserves punishment, it is assumed that any punishment they get is deserved. As a result, our prisons have regressed to a position beyond the law. They are filthy. They lack basic healthcare. They are abusive. And those on whom these conditions are inflicted are left without recourse.

These conditions fester against larger systematic issues. Our prisons are grossly overcrowded, and the dubiously-named ‘Operation Safeguard’ cannot resolve the fact that we have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. Two-thirds of those crammed into prisons are non-violent; one-ninth have not been tried; and nearly three thousand are still held on indefinite IPP ‘torture’ sentences.  Meanwhile, it is well-established that prison sentences fail to prevent reoffending. But even if these concerns were not the case – even if our prisons only held the deserving, for a deserved time – the scandalous conditions of our prisons would still turn stomachs.

‘Nasty, cruel, violent’

HMP Wandsworth is a case in point. The fifth-largest prison in the UK,  its most recent report by the Independent Monitoring Board called it ‘inhumane’. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons were so appalled by conditions there that they issued an Urgent Notification. It described the ‘crumbling, overcrowded, vermin-infested prison’ in such scathing terms that Wandsworth’s governor resigned.

The Wandsworth Prison Improvement Campaign is fronted by Liz Bridge, the prison’s former chaplain. Her campaign has drawn on the reports of those living in the prison, who described it as ‘nasty’, ‘cruel’, and ‘violent’. Wandsworth, says WPIC, is Britain’s Worst Prison. It has fierce competition for that title.

It is objectively true that Wandsworth is filthy. This is not simply mould and grime (too commonplace to be worth reporting), but emerges from the structure itself. The high Victorian ceilings of the wings make perfect roosts for pigeons. Their droppings can be found on the handrails and wing floors. Rats weave through its corridors and nest amid heaps of rubbish. Recent ‘intensive work’ has led to some improvement: now they are seen only ‘frequently’, leaving droppings across residential areas.

Wandsworth is not alone. At least 20 other prisons have rodent infestations. In Springhill the scurrying of rats keeps prisoners awake at night. In Grendon they can be found nibbling on food in the kitchens. Belmarsh is ‘plagued’ with them. In Pentonville they keep company with cockroaches. At least two prisons, after other pest-control methods failed, now rely on feral cats.

Such unhygienic conditions are amplified by a lack of sanitation. Wandsworth’s hot water supply is regularly out of action: one prisoner recorded that there was no hot water for 40% of his term. Even when the ancient plumbing does groan into action, cleanliness is still far away: on one wing, 140 men share six showers, available only an hour a day.

In such unhygienic conditions, healthcare is simply unavailable. One statistic suffices: at least 88 times in 10 months, prisoners were not given ‘critical medications’ for conditions such as epilepsy. It is ‘at least’ 88 times, because administration is so poor that the actual total is unidentifiable – but likely significantly higher.

Mental healthcare is particularly neglected. ACCT reviews, which safeguard prisoners at risk of self-harm, are regularly done without healthcare professionals. Many do not go ahead; others conclude with blank care maps. Fortunately, those with mental health needs are not left without support; rather, they are whisked into the arms of the Care and Support Unit – segregation. Isolated, prisoners have no more than 30 minutes out-of-cell time a day. One prisoner with mental health needs was kept segregated for 550 days, before being transferred to hospital.

This approach is not uncommon. Prisons ‘frequently use’ segregation as a substitute for healthcare. Several prisons have segregated mentally-ill prisoners for over 200 days. Cases of over 400 days are not unknown. The longest case the IMB found was over 800 days.

Such figures are more alarming given that imprisonment is disproportionately inflicted on the mentally ill. Half of all male prisoners, and three-quarters of female prisoners, have mental health issues. Some have been imprisoned solely because of their mental health, without having been found guilty: a situation which makes mental illness functionally a crime. In 2022, up to 2% of the population of Styal were there under such legislative provisions.

Imprisoning and isolating people with mental illness is ineffective as either deterrence or healthcare. It is a recipe for suffering. Last year there were 70,000 incidents of self-harm in prison. 3,349 people required hospitalisation. And 90 died self-inflicted deaths – an increase of nearly a quarter.

These deaths are not inevitable. They are not tragedies. They are the consequence of neglect, individual and institutional. Custody implies care. Forsaking that duty is a moral breach – and a legal one, as was recognised at Robert Fenlon’s inquest. An inadequate and ignored ACCT resulted in his self-inflicted death in Woodhill Prison. The (in)actions of the prison officers were so grave that the inquest found the death was an unlawful killing – the first time such a verdict has been reached in these circumstances.

‘Culture of lawlessness’

Officers such as those who killed Robert are abetted by what WPIC calls a ‘culture of lawlessness’: a combination of disorganisation, disorder and a lack of accountability.

The basic entitlements of prisoners are routinely disregarded. Prisoners are denied library access. They are denied their two hours out-of-cell time. Prisoners have little idea when, or if, they will be unlocked. Basic requests are ignored. New prisoners are denied the opportunity to contact friends and family for weeks. Meanwhile use of force has leapt by 49%, primarily to enforce instructions.

Accountability is absent. WPIC reports a ‘culture of secrecy’ preventing concerns being addressed. 15% of use of force incidents had no staff report. Complaints are delayed, when they are investigated at all. Segregated prisoners had access to phones, kiosks or showers revoked without authority.

Again, what is true for Wandsworth is true for many other detainees. Use of force increased by up to 60% across the prison estate, but body-worn footage is often partial or unavailable. Guards are openly reluctant to use it – especially alarming as force is overused against Black and Muslim detainees. In such circumstances, no effective investigation can be made.

This is not to say that there is no effective authority. Adjudications – a ‘nicking’ to inmates – allow prisons to remove prisoners’ privileges, stop their pay, isolate them, or even add days to their sentence. Dean Kingham, committee member of the Association of Prison Lawyers, says that prisons ‘routinely don’t follow due process’. Prisoners are given only a day’s notice. Although access to the Adjudication Manual is mandatory, it is commonly denied. There is only a right to legal representation in the most serious cases; in others, it can be denied, even for prisoners unable to represent themselves. ‘Justice’ is one-way.

‘Institutional indifference’

Underlying all these failings is a lack of organisation. The Urgent Notification found leadership decisions ‘unfathomable’. The IMB noted that regularly more than 50% of prison officers were unavailable. Despite a high-profile escape, prison officers did not know where the prisoners were, or even how many there should be.

These problems crystallised in R (Bumju Kim) v Governor of Wandsworth Prison. The court deemed Kim’s sentence served, yet he was returned to Wandsworth. His solicitor’s attempts by to have him released were rebuffed. His legal team resorted to a writ of habeus corpus, which was met with ‘institutional indifference’. Only the ironic threat of a penal notice secured the prison’s compliance.

This is at least the second time this happened at Wandsworth in a year.

With conditions like these, prisoners need redress. They do not have it.

Internal processes are largely fruitless: scarcely a quarter of prisoners believe their complaints are treated fairly. Many are returned unanswered. Anecdotal evidence reports complaints being rejected for raising ‘too many issues’. Complaints about complaints are regular fare for the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, and 29% of upheld grievances upheld should ‘clearly’ have been resolved by internal processes – yet were not.

However, even the Ombudsman offers only limited recourse. Over half of prisoners have literacy levels below the standard of an 11-year-old, leaving them unable to submit complaints. Capable prisoners will find half of their complaints are rejected as ineligible for investigation. Successful complaints obtain only ‘recommendations’, sometimes over a year after the fact. As a result, the Ombudsman’s reputation is poor. It is telling that, of the 229 upheld complaints since June 2023, only one related to a prison with an Urgent Notification.

Only when these fruitless avenues have been exhausted may prisoners turn to the courts. But legal access is heavily restricted. In-person legal visits are often ineffective, with lawyers refused permission to bring their laptop, or pen and paper. When they are allowed in and armed, privacy is unavailable. Meanwhile, video calls are unavailable at 18 prisons; and the remainder have waiting periods of three months. The record perhaps belongs to Haverigg, which offered a lawyer an appointment a year later ‘if that would be convenient’. This is better than Rochester, where access is ‘absolutely impossible’.

‘Britain’s worst prison’?

WPIC have described Wandsworth as ‘Britain’s Worst Prison’ – and it is easy to understand why. But does it really deserve that epithet? It was the subject of an Urgent Notification, but that was only one of four issued this last calendar year. Two of those prisons had already been the subject of previous Notifications. Wandsworth, as awful as it is, has only one-sixteenth the rate of self-harm as Eastwood Park. Nor is it the most violent: Feltham had more assaults than prisoners. Parc is the most lethal, with at least ten deaths in custody since February. Wandsworth is decidedly middling.

Nonetheless, Wandsworth is emblematic of a system that has evaded oversight, and degraded into a state of squalor and lawlessness. HMIP assess prisons on safety, respect, purposeful activity, and rehabilitation. Of their inspections of in 2022-3, only one prison achieved ‘reasonably good’ in all four categories. Put another way, all but one prison inspected was inadequate.

Our prisons are not only unfit for purpose – they are unfit for living. What is needed is scrutiny – even a brief glance behind the barred doors reveals not only legal failings, but abject moral flaws. If, as a society, we refuse to do better than shutting humans in cages, then the very least we can do is make those cages humane.

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