The trouble with Wormwood Scrubs: How Grayling created a disaster in the prison system

David Cameron is escorted around the Scrubs in 2012. Since then suicides at the prison have shot up.
David Cameron is escorted around the Scrubs in 2012. Since then suicides at the prison have shot up.
Ian Dunt By

Wormwood scrubs is in chaos. It is violent and understaffed, with prisoners spending all day in their cells and the number of suicides shooting up. But its failings were entirely foreseeable and preventable. They are the direct personal responsibility of Chris Grayling and his ministers.

The reasons for the chaos at the Scrubs are two-fold: spending cuts and Grayling's draconian new prison regime. These have created a perfect storm in which experienced staff were lost, existing staff were overstretched, and prisoners were put in brutalising conditions.

Prison's inspector Nick Hardwick, whose report was published this morning, said:

"Major structural changes in late 2013 had led to a significant reduction of resources. We were told that one consequence of this was that a large tranche of experienced staff had left very quickly and that this had been destabilising, not least because the prison had found it difficult to recruit replacements."


Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, admits the same point:

"Wormwood Scrubs has been through a difficult change process.  It has had to adapt to hold young offenders alongside its adult population whilst implementing new structures and routines to provide a decent regime for prisoners at lower cost. This has not been an easy transition."

The crux of the Scrubs report is that things are getting worse. In 2011, during the last inspection, it was getting the basics right and improving. Now it is falling apart. "This inspection found that the prison had declined significantly in almost every aspect," today's report found.

Prisoners did not feel safe. Work to reduce violence was "poorly resourced and too limited". Many prisoners tested positive for illicit drug use.

Use of force had doubled, with it being used disproportionately against young adults. More than a third of prisoners reported victimisation by staff. "Nothing had been done to understand or address this," the report said.

The standard of cells was unacceptably poor. "Toilets were often filthy and many cells had missing windows," the report said. "External areas were strewn with rubbish or overgrown."

Since the last inspection in 2011, six prisoners had taken their lives, five of them in 2013. Disgracefully, the recommendations about self-harm and suicide made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman have yet to be implemented.

It's worth remembering that it's not just convicted criminals being held in the Scrubs. Over 50 immigration detainees – people who have committed no crime and had no trial – are held in the prison rather than in immigration detention centres.

The blame for this appalling state of affairs can be laid at the door of the ministerial team, who remain deaf in the face of overwhelming evidence that their approach to the prison estate has proved disastrous.

What we are seeing is partly the result of spending cuts. This is what happens when you cut down on experienced staff, as Grayling was frequently warned. He ignored the warnings.

The report found:

"Many staff appeared extremely stretched and some were clearly frustrated that they could not do more; others appeared to have lost focus on prisoners' needs. Only a fifth of prisoners in our survey said that a member of staff had checked on them in the past week."

But this situation is also the result of the reforms which Grayling has himself instituted. Last November, he introduced the incentives and earned privileges scheme, a tough new jail regime designed to provide a "right-wing solution" to reoffending. Prisoners would have their creature comforts taken away. They would not be able to receive parcels, including those containing books or essentials, like underwear. It was made much easier to put a prisoner on 'basic regime', where they lose access to TV and their own clothes and are often kept in isolation.

The report paints a damning picture of the result of this new regime:

"The regime for the few prisoners on 'basic regime' was unacceptably poor. Too many prisoners in crisis were held in very poor conditions. At least three prisoners at risk of suicide were on the 'basic level' of the incentives and earned privileges scheme. Two were unemployed and were held in their cells for up to 23 hours a day with little or nothing to do. We talked to one unemployed prisoner at risk of suicide who was held alone for 23 hours a day in a filthy cell covered in graffiti. Despite being on the standard level [one above 'basic'], he had no television, radio or other activities to occupy him.

"There was little evidence that the incentives and earned privileges scheme had much impact on encouraging good behaviour."

Grayling will not address concerns about the regime, let alone act on them. He insists that prisoners are being given the option to work and study to gain privileges, even though sources within jails insist there are not enough work or study options available. He insists prisoners can use the library to get the books they have been banned from receiving by post, but sources in jails say there are not enough staff to take them to the library. He says he wants to get prisoners ready for work after they leave, but sources say they are kept in their cells all day because of lack of work and study resources.

The report corroborates all of this:

"Prisoners were barely able to leave their cells. We found up to 40% of prisoners locked up during the working day with nothing to do. Learning and skills provision was inadequate.

"Work to improve quality was ineffective, and prisoner access to activity, particularly vocational training, was poor. Success rates were consistently low, notably in respect of basic maths and English. Library usage had declined, as had access to the gym. Only one in ten prisoners said they had been helped to prepare for release.

"At the time of the inspection only ten per cent of respondents in our survey felt they were being helped in preparation for release. Many prisoners, notably low and medium risk prisoners, had little or no offender supervision."

Research by the Howard League found that the number of prison officers in the Scrubs was cut by 35% in almost four years, from 310 at the end of August 2010 to 200 at the end of June 2014. Over the same period, the prison population increased by eight per cent, from 1,170 to 1,258.

As Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said:

"Prisons have gone into meltdown in the last year and it is a direct result of government policy. I have never seen a public service deteriorate so rapidly and so profoundly. Wormwood Scrubs is the latest report in a litany of 10: Glen Parva, Isis, Hindley, Doncaster, Preston, Ranby, Gartree, Winchester and Bedford. This is not one prison with problems, this is a public service in meltdown."

This is a false economy: cutting resources for prisons does not save money. The very idea these inmates might be rehabilitated is a bad joke. In fact, they are brutalised: often by other prisoners, often by the authorities themselves - locked up in squalid conditions, without entertainment or learning, without work or access to study resources, and forgotten about.

It shouldn't surprise us that they go on to commit more crime, requiring another trial at public expense, another spell in prison at public expense, and leaving behind families without a breadwinner who have to be supported at public expense.

The economic case for the cuts to the prison service - particularly but not exclusively due to its impact on staff numbers - is nonsensical and pathetically short-sighted. It might save money in the short term, but it costs us more in the medium-and-long term.

On top of this, Grayling's insistence on a brutal prison regime, celebrated at the time by right-wing commentators but largely ignored by the press now, has compounded the problem.

This is a disaster of the secretary of state's own making. He should be held personally responsible.

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