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HMP Woodhill hit by 'damning' new report on response to record number of suicides

Prisoners also reported an increase in victimisation and violence

Peter Stubley
Tuesday 19 June 2018 00:10 BST
Woodhill currently holds 608 prisoners, even though it was only designed to accommodate 539, and more than half were found locked in their cells during the day
Woodhill currently holds 608 prisoners, even though it was only designed to accommodate 539, and more than half were found locked in their cells during the day (PA)

The prison with the highest number of suicides in England and Wales is still suffering from a chronic staff shortage which leaves inmates locked in their cells for long periods, according to a new report.

Over the last five years, a total of 19 men have taken their own lives at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes, including seven in 2016 alone.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons described the statistic as “staggering” in its latest review of conditions at the category A facility, which opened in 1992.

It concluded that Woodhill was “still not safe enough”, despite attempts to improve care in the wake of repeated criticism over the high number of self-inflicted deaths.

The number of incidents of self harm and assaults, both on prisoners and staff, has reached record levels at the facility, according to the latest statistics.

One inmate took his own life a few months after inspectors visited in February this year, and another was killed during a fight on 5 June.

The HMIP report concluded that staffing problems lay behind what it called a “poverty of regime”.

“Underpinning nearly all the concerns raised in this report, including issues of safety and wellbeing, were chronic staff shortages and inexperience,” said Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

“This led to poor time out of cell, unpredictable daily routines and limited access to activity.

“During the working day we found half the population locked in their cells. Many prisoners expressed frustration at the apparent inability of staff to help them.”

At the time of the inspection, there were 55 staff vacancies out of a total of 320, and 20 per cent of those in post had less than 12 months’ experience.

Prison reformer Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League charity, said: “Woodhill is a relatively new, purpose-built prison that has failed to keep people safe, which gives the lie to the myth so often trotted out by ministers that Victorian buildings are to blame for the many problems in the system.

“Rather, the long list of tragedies in Woodhill and elsewhere is the direct result of a catastrophic policy to allow the prison population to grow unchecked while starving jails of vital resources.

“The government is recruiting more officers, but ultimately ministers must also reduce the demand that is being placed on prisons.

“Bold but sensible action to reduce further the number of people behind bars would save lives, protect staff and prevent more people being swept into deeper currents of crime, violence and despair.”

Figures from the Howard League website show that Woodhill currently holds 608 prisoners, even though it was only designed to accommodate 539.

Prisons minister Rory Stewart claimed the government had recruited more than 3,000 staff in the last 18 months to improve safety.

“We have taken specific and urgent action to improve recruitment at Woodhill, including giving the governor a greater role in the process and introducing additional pay allowances,” he said.

“Fifty-five more officers are now in post than in October 2016 with an additional 32 officers due to hit landings by the end of November.”

Officials have also highlighted the reduction in suicides since 2016, with none recorded in the whole of 2017 and one so far this year.

Central and Northwest London NHS Foundation Trust, which provides healthcare at the prison, said the HMIP had recognised the improvements made since the last inspection.

"Every death in custody is a wasted life and our thoughts go out to every family that have suffered the deaths of their loved ones in HMP Woodhill," said clinical director, Dr Shamir Patel.

"Lessons have been learnt from each and every tragic death and these, in partnership with the prison and other agencies, have helped to shape service delivery.

"We accept that there is always room for improvement and continue to strive toward delivering high quality care to prisoners at HMP Woodhill.”

The HMIP welcomed the “considerable effort” put in by governor Nicola Marfleet and her staff but said a “disappointingly small” number of its 2015 recommendations had been implemented.

In May last year an inquest jury concluded the failure to implement those recommendations caused the death of Daniel Dunkley, who hanged himself in July 2016.

“The priorities for the prison were clear,” said Mr Clarke. “To stabilise the regime through adequate staffing, to devise and implement a clear, evidenced-based strategy to improve safety, and to sustain and embed the work being done to reduce self-harm.

“Incidents of self-harm remained high. Improvements had been made to the way prisoners at risk of self-harm were assessed and supported, but not all planned improvements had been sustained and we had real concerns that the poverty of regime had the potential to undermine the well-being of those at risk.”

According to the report, Woodhill’s performance in two of the “healthy prison tests” – safety and purposeful activity – had both deteriorated since the last inspection in 2015.

Prisoners reported an increase in victimisation and violence, and more than a quarter said they spent less than two hours out of their cell on a weekday.

The charity INQUEST, which monitors deaths in prison, described the inspection report as “damning”.

“Despite the utmost independent and legal scrutiny, the inspectors found a prison that is still not safe,” said Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST.

“INQUEST and the families bereaved by deaths in Woodhill hoped the spotlight on Woodhill might encourage urgent change and halt the deaths and harm. Yet here we are again. This is a failing prison in a failing system, and no amount of scrutiny has changed that. It is clear something more drastic needs to be done.”

Records kept by INQUEST show four self-inflicted deaths in 2013, two in 2014, five in 2015, seven in 2016 and one so far this year.

In November last year, a report by the Independent Monitoring Board found Woodhill was “barely fit for purpose”.

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