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Chronic staff shortages underpinning problems with drugs, violence and self-harm at HMP Woodhill

A report on Woodhill prison published today reveals the full scale of problems that led HM Chief Inspector of Prisons to write to the Secretary of State for Justice in August to invoke an Urgent Notification about the state of the jail.

Read the report: HMP Woodhill

As part of the long-term, high security estate, holding both category B and category A prisoners, Woodhill contains some of the most dangerous offenders in the prison estate. But rather than working to reduce the risk of prisoners reoffending on release, the severe shortages of staff meant men were locked in their cells for more than 21 hours a day with nothing to do.

Woodhill has a vital role in working with men convicted of serious crimes to reduce their future risk of harm to the public. The prison was fundamentally failing to deliver this, with only a third of prisoners telling us that their time at the jail was making them less likely to reoffend in the future. It was especially troubling to find that none of the recommendations from our 2021 inspection had been achieved; indeed many of the poor outcomes we had previously identified had, in fact, worsened.”

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

The frustration caused by the poor conditions in the prison contributed to rising violence, drug use and self-harm and inspectors found that the jail was fundamentally unsafe for both prisoners and staff. Sixty-five per cent of prisoners said that they had a mental health problem, yet there had been no mental health awareness training for officers for over a year despite there being 853 incidents of self-harm, and a significant rise since the previous inspection.

Levels of violence both between prisoners and against officers were very high. The prison had the highest rate of both serious assaults against staff and use of force against prisoners in the country, with 71% of prisoners saying that they had felt unsafe at some point during their time inside – much higher than in comparable prisons. In random mandatory drug tests, 38% of prisoners tested positive. The debt generated by the use of illicit drugs was the major driver of violence and bullying.

Many basic parts of the prison regime were also hindered by the lack of staff, including first night arrangements, prison inductions and cleaning. The jail was  unacceptably dirty with filthy corridors and ledges above the windows covered in rubbish. Showers were grimy and lacked privacy and cell repairs took too long.

Leadership of this high-risk prison is a huge challenge, made even harder by a severe and enduring shortage of staff. Local leaders urgently need more support from HMPPS, and the prison needs a complete reset, which first addresses the chronic staff shortage, and then begins to make the prison a safe, decent and purposeful place.”

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Notes to editors

  1. HMP Woodhill is a category B public training prison situated in Milton Keynes, holding 514 prisoners at the time of the inspection, and is part of the long-term and high-security prisons group.
  2. This inspection took place between 14 and 25 August 2023. Woodhill has been a prison in difficulty for some time, receiving our lowest healthy prison test scores for both safety and purposeful activity in our three most recent inspections. It was especially troubling to find that none of the recommendations from our 2021 inspection had been implemented.
  3. The Urgent Notification process was introduced in 2017 and is a means of raising immediate, urgent concerns following an inspection. A full report from the inspection is still published in the normal timeframe of within 14 weeks of the inspection. The Urgent Notification is supported by the evidence of the debrief from the inspection, which is presented to the governor, and which outlines the key issues which will be explored in more detail in the full report once published. Read the Urgent Notification for Woodhill and the Secretary of State’s response.
  4. We invoke an Urgent Notification by writing to the Secretary of State for Justice within seven calendar days of completing an inspection setting out our concerns. We also tell the governor of the prison that we are doing so. The Secretary of State then has 28 days following publication of the Urgent Notification to reply to us setting out an action plan of improvement. In this instance, the plan would be due on Thursday 28 September 2023. Find out more about Urgent Notifications.
  5. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  6. Please email if you would like more information.