Prison holding serious offenders is issued with Urgent Notification, with highest rate of serious assaults on officers and chronic staff shortages

The Chief Inspector of Prisons yesterday wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to issue an Urgent Notification for improvement at HMP Woodhill after an unannounced inspection found the prison was fundamentally unsafe.

Staff at Woodhill were subject to the highest rate of serious assaults in England and Wales and inspectors found bullying and intimidation by prisoners to be commonplace. Low morale meant many staff had voted with their feet: more officers were leaving than joining, with no indication that the situation would improve.

There were high levels of violence and drug use at the jail, which holds category A prisoners in addition to its role as a category B trainer. In a survey of prisoners, 71% said they had felt unsafe and inspectors found at least 26 who were self-isolating in their cells in fear for their safety.

The rate of reported self-harm at Woodhill was the highest in the adult male estate. Despite this, induction for new arrivals was very poor, emergency call bells often went unanswered for long periods, and ‘key work’ support from officers was non-existent.

Staff shortages meant education and work were often cancelled, and the library had been shut since 2020. Prisoners spent far too long locked in often damaged cells. Communal areas of the prison were neglected and dirty, and prisoners were frustrated at the lack of access to basic amenities and limited opportunities for progression. Without significantly improved staffing levels, it was not clear how the jail will improve.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said:

“This was a very concerning inspection. A little over a month after issuing an Urgent Notification for HMP Bristol, it is deeply troubling to report on another prison where both staff and prisoners felt fundamentally unsafe. Woodhill had the highest rate of serious assaults on staff, as well as levels of self-harm among male prisoners. Woodhill is a complex, high-risk prison, holding prisoners convicted of serious offences; it simply cannot operate effectively with such chronic staff shortages. Urgent support is needed from HMPPS to help Woodhill and other establishments to develop credible, long-term plans that improve staff recruitment, and, crucially, staff retention.

“It should be of considerable concern to us all that only a third of the prisoners at Woodhill said that their experience would make them less likely to reoffend in the future, a far lower proportion than at similar prisons. As I have repeatedly warned, simply warehousing prisoners and failing to get them into work and/or education does little to protect the public when these men are ultimately released.”

Notes to editors

  1. 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 timeframe 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.
  2. Read the letter and inspection debrief sent to the Secretary of State on 30 August.
  3. This inspection took place between 14 and 25 August 2023[1]. Woodhill has been a prison in difficulty for some time. There has been a worrying decline in outcomes across all four of our healthy prison tests (see below) and in our three most recent inspections the jail attracted our lowest healthy prison test scores for both safety and purposeful activity.
  4. The inspection team assess 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.
  5. 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. In this instance, the plan is due on Friday 29 September 2023. Find out more about Urgent Notifications.
  6. 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.
  7. Please email if you would like more information.
HMP Woodhill healthy prison assessments since 2014
Safety Respect Purposeful activity RRP
2023 1 2 1 2
2021 1 2 1 2
2018 1 3 1 3
2015 2 3 3 3
2014 2 3 1 2

[1] The prison’s Close Supervision Centre (CSC) was not part of this inspection.