A watchdog has called for a high-security jail holding notorious criminals like Charles Bronson to be put into emergency measures amid the high rate of attacks on prison officers and “chronic” staff shortages.
Chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor wrote to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk to issue an urgent notification for improvement at HMP Woodhill after an inspection found the Milton Keynes jail was “fundamentally unsafe”.
Staff at Woodhill – which has dangerous category A offenders among its inmates – 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”, with more officers leaving than joining and with “no indication that the situation would improve”, the watchdog said.
Mr Taylor said: “This was a very concerning inspection.
“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 (His Majesty’s 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.”
Inspectors found high levels of violence and drug use at the jail when they visited between August 14 and August 25.
There has been a “worrying decline” in conditions at Woodhill in five inspections carried out since 2014, Mr Taylor said in his letter to Mr Chalk.
Reported incidents of violence at the prison had “risen sharply”, with 298 attacks recorded in the 12 months leading up to the inspection, compared with 182 assaults prior to the previous inspection.
The use of force against inmates was also “amongst the highest in the adult male estate” but leaders “had yet to take effective action to make the prison safer.”
Drug use was a “serious problem”, with the jail having the sixth highest rate of positive mandatory test results among all prisons.
At least 26 prisoners were found “self-isolating in their cells in fear for their safety” and the rate of self-harm was the highest in the country for men’s prisons.
Staff shortages meant education classes and work were often cancelled for inmates, while the library had been shut since 2020.
Prisoners “spent far too long locked in often damaged cells” and 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”, the watchdog said.
Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, branded the report “shocking”, adding: “After repeated warnings, it is extremely disappointing that the prison now finds itself in this position.
“Ministers urgently need to get a grip on what has gone wrong.”
Prisons Minister Damian Hinds said: “The findings of this report demonstrate the urgent need for improvement at HMP Woodhill and we will be working closely and quickly with the prison to set out how it can address these issues.”
The findings come just over a month after Mr Taylor condemned HMP Bristol as one of the most unsafe prisons in England and Wales as he issued an urgent notification for improvement.
Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures published in July showed the number of prisons rated “outstanding” had fallen to its lowest point in six years.
Among the 119 prisons assessed, only 13 (10.9%) were awarded the highest rating, a significant drop compared with the performance in 2019/20, where 19 prisons (16.0%) achieved the top-tier recognition.
Bronson’s latest parole hearing took place in March at HMP Woodhill and was broadcast to members of the public and press via a live stream.
Parole papers published later that month which detailed the decision to keep him behind bars said officials hoped to move Bronson – one of the UK’s longest-serving prisoners who changed his surname to Salvador in 2014 – to another prison where he can show how he “manages himself in a more open unit with less restrictions on his behaviour”.
But it is understood this transfer is yet to take place.