THE CHIEF INSPECTOR of Prisons wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor on 30 August 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 per cent 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 (HM Prison and Probation Service) 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.”

Commenting on the report, Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This is a shocking report on a complex prison with a deeply troubled history, including a spate of self-inflicted deaths in the first half of the last decade. After repeated warnings, it is extremely disappointing that the prison now finds itself in this position. Inspectors had little choice but to issue an urgent notification as a result of their appalling findings.

“Poor staff retention seemed to be at root of many of the problems with more staff leaving than joining the establishment. Staff shortages meant prisoners spent far too long locked in damaged cells with little to do. Levels of serious assault on staff were the highest in England and Wales and seven in 10 prisoners reported feeling unsafe. Rates of self-harm were the highest in the adult male estate. Despite this, inspectors found the 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.

“This is a prison failing in its most basic of duties. As the chief inspector rightly points out, simply warehousing prisoners in dangerous and inhumane conditions does nothing to keep the public safe. Ministers urgently need to get a grip on what has gone wrong.”

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The details in the Chief Inspector’s letter are shocking, but this warning has not come out of the blue.

“Woodhill has been unsafe and understaffed for several years, and it is a scandal that conditions inside the prison have been allowed to deteriorate for so long. People living and working there have been failed repeatedly, and the high rates of self-harm, violence and staff turnover should come as no surprise to ministers.

“In the past, when prisons have been found to be failing, the default response has been to ease pressure by moving some men to other jails. But that option no longer exists because most prisons are overcrowded already.

“There will be more harrowing inspections, and more urgent notifications, unless the government takes sensible steps to reduce the number of people in prison. Unfortunately, ministers seem determined to build still more prisons, at a time when there are insufficient staff to work in the ones we already have.”

The Urgent Notification process 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.

* Read the letter sent to the Secretary of State on 30 August here.

* Read the inspection debriefing paper here.

* Sources: HM Inspector of Prisons, Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform