Wormwood Scrubs - safer and cleaner but prisoners locked in cells for too long

Read the report: HMP Wormwood Scrubs

HMP Wormwood Scrubs, a Victorian men’s local prison in west London, was found by HM Inspectorate of Prisons to have maintained improvements in treatment and conditions over the last two years, though too many men were locked up for most of the day.

Inspectors visited the prison, holding over 1,000 men, in June 2021. Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said Wormwood Scrubs had a troubled recent history culminating in an inspection in 2017, which described the ‘intractability and persistence of failure at this prison’.

“When inspectors returned in 2019, they found a much-improved situation and I am pleased to say that this report shows that progress in many areas has been maintained. The prison feels calm and well-ordered and inspectors who knew the prison well noted a better atmosphere than in the past.”

A third of prisoners were foreign nationals, more than half were black, Asian and minority ethnic and two-thirds were unsentenced. Inspectors found the prison to be safer than in 2019. Assaults on staff and the use of force had continued to fall, while the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults was one of the lowest of all local prisons.

However, Mr Taylor commented:

“Reductions in violence were at least partly due to the fact that most prisoners had been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and were at the expense of access to work, education and time to socialise.

“This was compounded for the 118 prisoners who had to share cramped, often ill-ventilated cells that were designed for one person, though the welcome introduction of in-cell telephones had at least allowed them to stay in regular touch with family and friends. Leaders at Wormwood Scrubs had not shown the ambition that we have seen elsewhere in increasing the amount of time prisoners were spending out of their cells.”

Around 300 prisoners had some form of work, but others had only an hour unlocked each day. Food was served at cell doors in foil containers and 80% of prisoners said it was bad.

Prison officers were “rightly proud” of the cleanliness of their wings which, considering the churn in prison population, was mostly good. Recruitment and retention of staff has always been difficult at Wormwood Scrubs and inspectors found that a quarter of staff were recently recruited officers who had started during the pandemic and had not yet experienced anything like a normal regime. Staff training had fallen behind during the pandemic and, Mr Taylor said, “hard work is needed to make sure that officers are fully prepared when the regime begins to open up.”

Inspectors also found that the education provider had been too slow in reopening services and had done little to communicate with prisoners about the availability or range of courses. “A lack of planning for a return to face-to-face education meant that classrooms were empty while prisoners were languishing behind their doors,” Mr Taylor said.

On a more positive note, the Listener scheme – prisoners trained by the Samaritans to support other prisoners – was particularly impressive “and, where in some prisons this vital service had withered during the pandemic, at Wormwood Scrubs it had continued to thrive. Self-harm had reduced substantially and was already on a downward trend before the pandemic.”

Overall, Mr Taylor said:

“… the prison was a much safer, cleaner and better organised prison than it had been in the past, but prisoners were locked in their cells for too long. The most important challenge facing leaders is to maintain and improve on the levels of safety, while significantly increasing the amount of time prisoners are spending out of their cells in education, training, work, leisure and rehabilitation activity.”

– End –

Notes to editors

  1. Read the HMP Wormwood Scrubs report, published on 9 September 2021.
  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 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. In this inspection we identified seven examples of notable positive practice (see pages 14–15.).
  5. This inspection took place between 7 and 17 June 2021.
  6. Please contact John Steele at john.steele@justice.gov.uk or on 07880 787452 if you would like more information.