After 19 suicides in seven years Milton Keynes prison comes under fire again from inspectors

HMP Woodhill
HMP Woodhill

Milton Keynes’ Woodhill prison – where a “staggering” total of 19 men have taken their lives in seven years – is still struggling to improve its care for vulnerable prisoners, said an inspection report today.

HM Prison Inspectors also found “chronic and substantial” staff shortages. As a result, many prisoners were locked up in their cells for long periods every day, stated the report.

Inside Woodhill Prison Milton Keynes

Inside Woodhill Prison Milton Keynes

They found there was an historical failure to implement recommendations from coroners and previous Prisons and Probation Ombudsman inquiries into deaths, with a “ disappointingly small number” of improvements actually carried out.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned the jail’s regime risked undermining the work to improve care.

He said: “Incidents of self-harm remained high. Improvements had been made to the way prisoners at risk of self-harm were assessed and supported, but not all planned improvements had been sustained and we had real concerns that the poverty of regime had the potential to undermine the well-being of those at risk.”

Inspectors found, overall, a “decidedly mixed” picture at Woodhill – which holds just over 600 men as local prisoners, alongside a small number of high-security prisoners.

The assessment of respect for prisoners in the jail was “reasonably good”, with mostly good living conditions. Rehabilitation and resettlement work was also “reasonably good.”

However, safety and purposeful activity, the other two “healthy prison” tests applied by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, were both assessed as poor, the lowest assessment. Both these aspects had deteriorated significantly since the previous inspection in 2015.

Mr Clarke said: “Underpinning nearly all the concerns raised in this report, including issues of safety and well-being, were chronic staff shortages and inexperience. This led to poor time out of cell, unpredictable daily routines and limited access to activity. From a staffing complement of 320 officers there were, at the time of the inspection, 55 vacancies, and 20% of officers in post had less than 12 months’ experience. Many prisoners expressed frustration at the apparent inability of staff to help them.

“During the working day we found half the population locked in their cells. Our colleagues in Ofsted judged the overall effectiveness of learning and skills provision to be ‘inadequate’, their lowest assessment and caused mainly by the underuse of available training and education resources owing to staff shortages.”

Inspectors found that Woodhill was “still not safe enough”, with nearly a third of prisoners saying they currently felt unsafe.

Many prisoners reported victimisation and violence has increased to levels greater than inspectors typically see in local prisons, stated the report.

Mr Clarke said: “We were concerned about the high number of assaults that had taken place against staff. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that this was related to the paucity of the regime on offer and the inconsistency of staff in their dealings with prisoners.”

Despite external scrutiny and analysis, coupled with work to improve care, the number of self-inflicted deaths remains a “huge concern”, he said.

He added: “At the time we inspected, eight prisoners had taken their own lives since our previous inspection in 2015 and, staggeringly, 19 prisoners had taken their own lives at the establishment since 2011. Tragically, a few months after this inspection another prisoner was reported to have taken his own life.

“The priorities for the prison were clear: to stabilise the regime through adequate staffing; to devise and implement a clear, evidenced-based strategy to improve safety; and to sustain and embed the work being done to reduce self-harm.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said: “Woodhill manages a complex and vulnerable population and the governor and her staff have worked tirelessly to improve support and care for prisoners and there were no self-inflicted deaths in 2017. Tragically there has been one self-inflicted death this year, but the prison remains focused on safety and supporting vulnerable men. Staffing vacancies have had an impact but we have a strong pipeline of new recruits which will significantly increase staffing in the coming months. This will improve the regime and mean more rehabilitative activity for prisoners.”

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