Latest inspectors’ report shows the dismal state of our prison system

Work with offenders on an inspection of HMP Winchester

Today’s inspection report into the state of affairs at Winchester prison makes for dismal reading. The prison is one of our older Victorian ones (built in 1849) and held just under 500 prisoners when the inspectors made their unannounced inspection in February this year.

The most worrying finding was that Winchester, as has been the case for some years, continues to be one of the most violent prisons in the country.

The inspectors did highlight that there had been some impressive work to reduce the risk posed by some of the most violent prisoners, but said that there was no meaningful strategy to understand and address the causes of violence within the main population.

Depressingly, inspectors found that most prisoners were locked in their cells for 22.5 hours a day, even longer at the weekend.

Living conditions were far worse than in similar prisons and, in many areas, they were worse than at the time of the last inspection in 2019.

Despite some improvements to the fabric of Winchester’s buildings, such as new showers on some wings, ongoing issues with the water supply has meant that fewer prisoners were able to shower daily than in any other prison the inspectors have visited.

Many of the cells, particularly on one particular landing, were covered in graffiti or dilapidated, with worn out furniture and lavatories. Leaders had put up posters around the prison showing their aspiration for how cells ought to look, but there was no credible plan for how or when these improvements would be made.

Prisoners complained to inspectors that they had nowhere to store possessions safely. Locked in their cells for most of the day, they had to eat their meals next to dirty, uncovered, and unscreened toilets. A ‘decency policy’ had recently been introduced but there was little evidence of improvement as a result.

The inspectors recorded that the enthusiastic education managers were very frustrated by the prison’s inability to get prisoners to classrooms and workshops, both consistently and on time. This made it impossible to plan work programmes because they did not know who, if anyone, was going turn up each day.

There was no assessment of the skills of prisoners when they came into the prison, which meant that those who had been employed in the community were not provided with suitable work. Ofsted judged outcomes for prisoners as inadequate across the board.

As with so many prisons (and indeed many probation areas), one of the key problems was staff shortages. The prison had struggled to recruit and retain enough staff and this problem was directly affecting the day-to-day running of the jail. At times there were simply not enough officers to ensure even the most basic regime for prisoners. Officers were frequently cross deployed from the gym and the offender management unit which meant access to these services was further reduced. Inspectors urged the prison leaders to get an understanding of why so many staff were leaving and put a staff retention plan in place.

The inspectors went out of their way to acknowledge the skill and dedication of many staff but the Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor concluded:

“There is no doubt that the pandemic has limited some of the progress at Winchester, but leaders have failed to show enough real, sustained grip. If it is to improve from this disappointing inspection, the prison will need leaders to be active and visible on the wings, and set clear, measurable targets for improvement so that prisoners are safer, kept in decent conditions and given enough to do during the day.”