INSPECTORS WHO VISITED the heavily overcrowded, vermin-infested HMP Wandsworth men’s prison in September 2021 concluded that a reduction of 300 in the population, and dynamic work by the governor, had prevented it from being overwhelmed by its many challenges.

However, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned that a planned increase in the number of prisoners held threatened the limited progress that had been made in the south-west London Victorian prison since the last inspection in 2018.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons found a catalogue of problems:

  • Prisoners were locked up for at least 22 hours a day and sometimes had only 45 minutes unlocked. They complained to inspectors about going for days, and sometimes weeks, without time in the open air.
  • Despite the reduction of the population by 300, to 1,364 in September 2021, Wandsworth remained one of the most overcrowded prisons in England and Wales, with nearly three-quarters of prisoners doubling up in cells designed for one.
  • Violence had been on an upward trend over the last 12 months, with assaults on staff much higher than in similar prisons.
  • There were not enough staff to make sure prisoners received even the most basic regime. They sometimes had to choose between exercise, ordering from the kiosk and having a shower.
  • Litter and food were thrown from cell windows and the prison had a major problem with rats, mice and pigeons.
  • Gym sessions were regularly cancelled and much of the essential resettlement and sentence progression work was not happening. The education provider had failed to do enough to engage prisoners or develop learning opportunities for a population that was desperately bored. The education block had sat unused since March 2020.
  • Nearly half of the prisoners were foreign nationals, many of whom came from eastern Europe. Mr Taylor said: “The prison, the education service and, in particular, Home Office staff, were not doing enough to support this group of prisoners.”

Mr Taylor added: “The infrastructure of the jail needed a lot of work: cells and landings were often tatty, some of the showers were awful and outside areas were strewn with rubbish. The inpatient mental health unit, due to be refurbished, was not a fit place to care for seriously unwell patients.”

On a more positive note, there had also been some impressive improvements: the legal visits and video conferencing took place in an excellent facility and the visits hall had been decorated with prisoner-painted murals.

Despite the poor daily regime, inspectors found a generally calm atmosphere in Wandsworth, possibly because prisoners were kept well informed about the pandemic and important developments. As well as a high number of foreign national prisoners, the population of Wandsworth was characterised by nearly three-quarters being unsentenced and nearly half serving time on remand.

Understandably, Taylor said, the experienced and dynamic governor had focused on keeping the day-to-day functions of the prison going as he dealt with the extensive list of challenges. “He now has the opportunity, with an improving leadership team, to put in more robust assurance systems around some crucial functions such as use of [staff] force, safeguarding and violence reduction.”

There had been nine self-inflicted deaths since 2018 and the prison must continue to respond to Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s reports into those deaths to make sure that everything is done to reduce the risk to the most vulnerable prisoners.

As some of the concerns about the pandemic begin to reduce, leaders will also have the opportunity to focus on developing longer-term plans for the jail that set targets and introduce effective systems for monitoring and review.

However, Mr Taylor issued a warning: “Leaders in this crumbling, overcrowded, vermin-infested prison will need considerable ongoing support from the prison service, notably with the recruitment and retention of staff, improving the infrastructure of the jail and making sure that external agencies such as the Home Office and the education provider pull their weight. It is hard to see how HMP Wandsworth’s limited progress can be sustained if prisoner numbers in this jail are allowed to increase as they are scheduled to do next April [2022].”

* Read the full inspection report here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons