HMP Wormwood Scrubs - impressive, though fragile, improvement

HMP Wormwood Scrubs — built in the late nineteenth century and one of the country’s most famous prisons — was found to have made encouraging progress since a very troubling inspection two years ago.

In 2017, the west London prison, which holds just over 1,000 men, was assessed as poor in safety and rehabilitation and release planning and not sufficiently good for respect and purposeful activity. At an announced inspection in September 2019, safety and release work had improved one grade to not sufficiently good. Purposeful activity remained the same and respect was now reasonably good.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Clearly there remains much to do to ensure that Wormwood Scrubs delivers acceptable outcomes consistently for those detained… However, it should be acknowledged that these [2019] assessments describe a prison that is much improved from the institution we inspected in the summer of 2017. At that time, we found a prison that could only be described accurately as being in a state of crisis.”

Had the Inspectorate’s Urgent Notification (UN) process been available at the time of the 2017 inspection, it would “most assuredly have been invoked.” At the time, though, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) used the report as a model for testing how it would respond to future UNs. “What we saw at this inspection suggests HMPPS had made considerable efforts to meet that commitment,” Mr Clarke commented.

Much was now being done to make the prison safer, though this work was often not sufficiently embedded to have yet made enough difference to outcomes. Over a third of prisoners still reported feeling unsafe and recorded violence had increased, although there were fewer serious incidents than at comparable prisons. There was some evidence that the use of illicit drugs was reducing, although the oversight and delivery of drug testing, and the coordination of a wider drug strategy, needed to improve.

Since 2017 there had been four self-inflicted deaths and one homicide. Some recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following its investigations into deaths were still outstanding, and the prison had been too slow to address this area of risk. The level of self-harm was high, although similar to other prisons. Since the beginning of 2019, however, work to ensure the safety of those at risk of self-harm had improved markedly.

The prison was more respectful with generally satisfactory staff-prisoner relationships and interaction. The prison environment and the quality and cleanliness of cells were much improved, although some cells were still overcrowded. Work to promote equality and diversity had also improved.

Time out of cell remained inadequate, with nearly 40% of prisoners locked up during the working day. “Enough activity was theoretically available, sufficient for all prisoners to have at least part-time activity, but attendance was too often poor, especially in education,” Mr Clarke added.

The prison’s approach to rehabilitation and release planning was also improving. Public protection measures had improved and were mostly effective, though inspectors identified a few high-risk cases where release planning arrangements were inadequate.

Mr Clarke said:

“This is, overall, an encouraging report. Unlike our visit two years ago, we found a more settled prison where both staff and prisoners were more positive about the establishment. The governor and the senior management team had risen to the considerable challenges of managing a prison like Wormwood Scrubs. They had effectively analysed the problems in the prison and were remedying them in a measured and thoughtful way. They acknowledged the good support they had received from HMPPS and were looking to embed the progress they had made. While impressive, however, that progress remained fragile. This is not the time to relax management grip or dilute HMPPS’ support for a team of managers who have shown what it takes to start turning around a historically difficult prison.”

Phil Copple, HMPPS Director General for Prisons, said:

“I am pleased inspectors have recognised the impressive progress made at Wormwood Scrubs to tackle drugs, self-harm, and gang culture. Clearly, more needs to be done at what has been a very challenging prison, but the Governor and her team are resolutely focused on driving further improvements. That work has begun – bolstered security measures such as the x-ray body scanner are helping to stop the flow of drugs, and vulnerable prisoners are already being given better support.”

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Notes to editors
1. The full report, published on 11 February 2020, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website.

2. 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.

3. HMP Wormwood Scrubs is a local prison and a designated resettlement prison holding adult men and some young adults. Wormwood Scrubs was built by prisoners from Millbank Gaol between 1875 and 1891. In 1902, the last female prisoner was transferred to HMP Holloway. In 1922, one wing became a borstal. During World War II, the prison was used by the War Department. In 1994, a new hospital wing was completed, and in 1996 a fifth wing was completed.

4. HM Inspectorate of Prisons assesses adult prisons against four ‘healthy prison tests’ – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning. There are four assessments – good (4), reasonably good (3), not sufficiently good (2) and poor (1). At its inspection in 2017, Wormwood Scrubs scored 1-2-2-1. In 2019 it scored 2-3-2-2.

5. Notable features from this inspection: there had been four self-inflicted deaths since our previous inspection; a quarter of prisoners were foreign nationals; over 60% of prisoners were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds; over 120 volunteers supported the chaplaincy, and 86% of prisoners identified themselves as having a religion, far more than we normally see; although there were enough activity places for the population, 38% of prisoners were locked up during the working day; and in the previous six months 78% of prisoners with an identified accommodation need, and 86% of those without, had been released to suitable and sustainable accommodation.

6. This announced inspection took place between 16 September and 4 October 2019.

7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.