HMP Oakwood/UK Government Watch
Whenever a high-profile court case comes to an end or a well-known prisoner is released, calls for ‘honesty in sentencing’ grow louder. Should we know at the time of sentence exactly how long a prisoner will spend behind bars?
The argument is likely to run and run, but perhaps we spend too much time debating the length of time that someone is locked up and too little considering what happens to them while they are inside. Never mind honesty in sentencing; the Howard League for Penal Reform would like to see some honesty in prisons.
Take, for example, the head of the Prison Service’s response to an inspection report published this week on HMP Oakwood, a huge G4S-managed training prison near Wolverhampton that opened in April 2012.
Commenting on the findings by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, Michael Spurr said: “The challenge of opening any new prison should not be underestimated. It is a complex and difficult operation – but throughout the mobilisation period Oakwood has delivered a safe, secure and ordered regime.”
Safe, secure and ordered.
Compare this with the language found within the report itself – a report described as ‘very concerning’ by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and his team.
Inspectors found that a wide range of illicit drugs were available inside Oakwood, and prescribed medication was being abused.
“One in seven prisoners said that they had developed a drug problem while at the prison,” the report says. “Although the drug testing positive rates were not high, they were distorted by the very high number of prisoners refusing to be tested.”
On more than one occasion, inspectors were told by prisoners that ‘you can get drugs here but not soap’.
The inspection team found that levels of self-injury were very high. Compared with similar jails, considerably more prisoners at Oakwood were deemed to be at risk of harming themselves.
Some prisoners were self-harming, or threatening to, out of frustration because they believed they were receiving insufficient help from staff. Others hurt themselves because they felt victimised due to debts.
“Some prisoners we spoke to said that threatening self-harm was sometimes the only way to get help with fairly basic requests or get protection from victimisation,” the inspection team says in its report.
Oakwood was more violent than other prisons of its type, inspectors found, and the use of force was more than twice as high.
“Even the designated units meant to protect those declared vulnerable were not working effectively,” the report says, “and too many prisoners on these units also felt unsafe.”
Another extract hints at deep-rooted problems: “Many staff were passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion, in an attempt to avoid confrontation, and there was clear evidence of staff failing to tackle delinquency or abusive behaviour.”
As a training prison, Oakwood is meant to be preparing prisoners for the world of work, helping them develop the skills they need to find employment on the outside. But the inspectors found that well over one-third of inmates were locked up during the working day because there was not enough purposeful activity available.
Health care was found to be very poor, with the administration of medication said to be in chaos. Many prisoners missed doses regularly because of poor organisation.
The inspection team met a prisoner who had suffered a severe stroke before coming into custody. He was in a wheelchair but a splint that he wore to ease his ‘foot drop’ was broken. He had been in Oakwood for three months.
“At his previous establishment,” the report continues, “he had received intensive physiotherapy at a designated stroke unit three times a week, but since transferring to Oakwood he had not received any physiotherapy and had not been seen by nursing staff, other than to receive his medication.”
Another prisoner regularly missed doses of his medicines because he could not find anyone to push his wheelchair to the medication hatch.
Inspectors found that there were no appropriate interventions for 300 prisoners who had committed sex offences, many of whom were in denial of their offending. A large number of these prisoners were due for release without their offending being addressed.
This is not the first report to find Oakwood wanting. An Independent Monitoring Board document, published in August, revealed that the prison even ran out of toilet paper in its early days of operation.
G4S says it has already taken steps to make improvements – a crumb of comfort for shareholders – but its admission that the ‘size and scale’ of Oakwood has made its difficulties ‘even more acute’ should concern the government, which has announced plans to build a new ‘superprison’ in North Wales.
All this is potentially embarrassing for Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who has hailed Oakwood as a shining example for the rest of the prison system to follow.
In February, Mr Grayling told MPs: “We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood, which opened recently in the West Midlands. That site has multiple blocks and first-class training facilities.
“To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service.”
Do you agree?
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