HMP Whatton – national restrictions on local innovation a source of frustration

Read the report: HMP Whatton

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons assessed that HMP Whatton, a prison in Nottinghamshire holding 770 sex offenders, was being held back in its attempts to restore its expert rehabilitative work.

After five months of COVID-19 restrictions, staff were frustrated that rigid national rules were severely curtailing their ability to be innovative in working with prisoners in an establishment with a national function to provide services which address the offending behaviour of those convicted of sexual offences. Most were serving long sentences of over four years, including 45% serving indeterminate or life sentences.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that at the very start of the pandemic, one prisoner had died in hospital from a COVID-19-related illness and a few staff members had been symptomatic, but there had been no further cases in the prison at the time of the scrutiny visit in August 2020. Clear communication to staff and prisoners and appropriate measures to reduce the spread of infection had helped to keep the prison safe.

Levels of violence had reduced and the use of force by staff remained low. However, the report noted that the number of self-harm incidents was higher following lockdown. The prison managed some prisoners with complex cases who repeatedly self-harmed, accounting for over a quarter of all incidents. Prisoners who had recently self-harmed reported feeling very frustrated with the prolonged restricted regime.

Staff-prisoner relationships remained positive, although time out of cell was restricted. Mr Clarke added: “Managers had taken a reasonable decision to focus what limited time for key work was available on the prisoners with the greatest need, such as those who were being supported by assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management.

“However, other one-to-one opportunities with prison offender managers (POMs) or other specialist staff were limited, providing a possible explanation for our survey findings, which although positive about relationships with staff, indicated the quality of contact needed to be better.”

Prisoners at Whatton felt the weight of the COVID-19 restrictions heavily because before lockdown, most of them had benefited from plenty of time out of cell and reliable access to programmes, education and work. At the time inspectors visited, in August 2020, most prisoners were locked up for around 22 hours a day, which was clearly taking its toll on many of those inspectors spoke to. The prison had retained work for around a third of the population, however, which was commendable.

Mr Clarke said: “Managers believed they could deliver more but the need to comply rigidly to the national framework for recovery had affected the scope of what the prison could offer, and the pace at which it could be delivered, in several areas. This was clearly a source of frustration for managers and prisoners, who felt their ability to be innovative and creative had been severely curtailed.”

Prisoners had transferred to Whatton from all over the country to complete offending behaviour programmes to reduce their risk and progress through their sentence. Much of this crucial work had stopped during the restricted regime, though the prison had maintained some useful one-to-one offending behaviour work and had well-developed plans to restart small-scale groupwork.

Too many prisoners were released without sustainable accommodation, which undermined the otherwise good public protection work at Whatton.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “Managers and staff at Whatton were keeping prisoners relatively safe and motivated during challenging times. The pace of change was being directed nationally and was slower than the prison was capable of. Managers and staff were anxious about the impact on prisoners of long-term restrictions in a prison that had previously provided a full and rehabilitative regime.”

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Notes to editors

1. Read the report: HMP Whatton. This report was published on 29 September 2020.

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. Read about the development of scrutiny visits (SVs) in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. These are short inspections which, while not as exhaustive as our full inspections, are more in-depth than the short scrutiny visits used in the early months of the pandemic. They include the reintroduction of a prisoner survey.

4. HMP Whatton was built in 1966 as a detention centre for boys. It became a young offender institution in 1989 and re-roled in 1990 as an adult male category C training prison. During the 1990s, it developed as a prison for people convicted of sex offences. Its population more than doubled in early 2006 with the building of eight new units. The prison remains exclusively for prisoners convicted of sex offences.

5. This scrutiny visit took place between 18 and 25–26 August 2020.

6. On pages 11-12 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and four examples of notable positive practice identified by inspectors.

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