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Deaths, drugs and despair: Wandsworth prison issued with an Urgent Notification for improvement

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, has written to the Secretary of State for Justice to issue an Urgent Notification for improvement following a deeply concerning inspection of Wandsworth prison which found ongoing failings in security, severe overcrowding, vermin, drugs, violence and rising self-harm. Tragically, seven prisoners had taken their own lives in the past year.

Eighty percent of prisoners shared cells designed for one person, and most men spent more than 22 hours a day confined to these cramped, squalid, conditions with no idea if or when they would leave them or have any access to fresh air. During the inspection, prisoners on one wing had been unable even to shower for five days. Many were in despair, with no hope that improvement was possible, creating an environment Mr Taylor said was characterised by “a degree of despondency that I have not come across in my time as Chief Inspector”. Self-harm was high, with inspectors finding men in clear distress and without support. Despite this, and the high number of self-inflicted deaths, around 40% of emergency cell bells were not answered within the required five minutes.

Relationships between staff and prisoners were poor or non-existent. Most staff at every level were very inexperienced, and, despite being fully staffed on paper, over a third of operational staff weren’t available for work each day. This led to further restrictions on prisoners, and burnt-out prison officers struggling to keep things going. The level of inexperience was also preventing the prison from bringing about much-needed change, with inspectors noting that, while staff were not wilfully neglectful, they did not understand their role and they lacked direction, training, and consistent support from leaders, many of whom were themselves inexperienced and temporarily promoted.

Despite a high-profile escape in September, security remained a serious concern. Wings were chaotic and staff across most units could not accurately account for their prisoners during the working day. “Given the recent escape,” Mr Taylor noted, “it was unfathomable that leaders had not focussed their attention on this area”.

Wandsworth was not reducing the risk of men reoffending. With very poor access to education, employment and the library, and the appalling conditions in which men were held, it was unsurprising that only 35% said their experiences at the jail would make them less likely to reoffend – a much lower figure than other reception prisons. Adding to this, only 11% of those released from Wandsworth in the past year had had sustainable accommodation to go to.

The poor outcomes we found at Wandsworth are systemic and cultural failures and stemmed from poor leadership at every level of the prison, from HMPPS and the Ministry of Justice. Many well-meaning and hard-working leaders and staff persevered at Wandsworth, and their resilience was impressive, but they were often fighting against a tide of cross-cutting, intractable problems that require comprehensive, long-term solutions.

For this troubled prison to begin to recover, Wandsworth needs permanent experienced leaders at all levels who are invested in its long-term future to improve security, safety and guide their less experienced colleagues. Until this happens, the risk of a further catastrophe, a self-inflicted death or escape from lawful custody, is ever present.
Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Notes to editors

  1. Read the letter announcing the Urgent Notification at Wandsworth and the Wandsworth debriefing paper sent to the Secretary of State on 8 May 2024: HMP Wandsworth Urgent Notification
  2. This inspection took place between 22 April and 2 May 2024.
  3. The Urgent Notification process was introduced in 2017 and is a means of raising immediate, urgent concerns following an inspection which requires a response and action plan from the Secretary of State within 28 days. A full report from the inspection is still published in the normal time frame 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.
  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. Find out more about Urgent Notifications.
  5. The inspection team assesses the establishment’s performance against the applicable healthy establishment tests using the following judgements: 4 – outcomes for prisoners are good, 3 – outcomes for prisoners are reasonably good, 2 – outcomes for prisoners are not sufficiently good and 1 – outcomes for prisoners are poor. In this inspection, the scores were Safety – 1, Respect – 1, Purposeful activity – 1, Preparation for release – 2.
  6. Wandsworth is the sixth prison to be issued with an Urgent Notification since November 2022. The other prisons are Exeter, Woodhill, Bristol, Bedford and Cookham Wood YOI.
  7. 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.
  8. Please email if you would like more information.