10:16, December 28 365 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-28 10:16:03
HMP Woodhill inmates' lives at risk – former prisons ombudsman

Prisoners’ lives were still at risk due to staffing shortages in a jail with the highest suicide rate in Britain, a damning report commissioned by the government found.

The study by the former prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw, found that difficulties in recruiting and keeping staff had led to a “completely unacceptable situation” at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes.

Twenty prisoners killed themselves at the prison between 2011 and 2016, by far the highest death toll in any UK prison over a comparable period. The next worst site for prisoner fatalities, HMP Leeds, had 11 deaths over the same period.

The Ministry of Justice commissioned Shaw to investigate the 20 deaths in February and his unpublished report, which was delivered to Whitehall in May, has been seen exclusively by the Guardian.

It concluded that HMP Woodhill still struggled with staff recruitment and retention problems, which have plagued the prison since it opened in 1992, and that “until levels are stabilised, the vulnerability to further deaths, or near misses, will remain”.

Shaw, who was the prisons ombudsman for England and Wales until 2010, found that 1 in 10 of the prison’s roughly 800 prisoners were on a form of suicide watch, a ratio he said was “unique to Woodhill” and far higher than most prisons.

The high level of observation on inmates was unsustainable, he found, and damaged everyday prison life, with activities often cancelled. Shaw found that six prisoners were on round-the-clock suicide watch, meaning 18 staff were taken away from normal duties on a daily basis.

There were also failings in recording of data on inmates thought to be at risk of self-harm, Shaw found, due to the uniquely high number of prisoners judged to be suicidal at Woodhill.

Shaw’s report concluded that, while Woodhill operates a safer regime than before, the jail had gone too far in implementing safety procedures and that its high ratio of prisoners on suicide watch was unsustainable.

Woodhill is converting from a local prison to a category B training establishment. It will no longer receive prisoners from courts, which should reduce the risk as these prisoners are considered the most vulnerable to self-harm.

In May, an inquest into the death of Daniel Dunkley, the 18th man to die at Woodhill, heard that the prison had repeatedly assured the prison and probations ombudsman that his recommendations following earlier deaths at the prison had been implemented. In fact, they had been ignored.

The governor at Woodhill told the same inquest that if the ombudsman’s recommendations had been implemented then Dunkley would probably not have taken his own life. The jury concluded that the failure of Woodhill to put those recommendations into practice had caused Dunkley’s death.

The Shaw report was commissioned after families of the deceased Woodhill inmates tried to launch a high court judicial review into why measures to prevent suicide were not put in place at the jail. The high court refused their civil claim in May, the same month Shaw handed his findings to the Ministry of Justice.

The solicitor Jo Eggleton, of the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, represented the families of 11 men who died at Woodhill and obtained Shaw’s report under the Freedom of Information Act.

She said the families had been invited to make representations to Shaw but he had already submitted his report when he met them in July this year. “An important opportunity to listen and learn from the families was missed,” she said.

Deborah Coles, director of the civil rights group Inquest, said Shaw’s review did not come from the Prison Service’s desire to learn from the record number of deaths but because the families of the bereaved challenged the prison’s repeated failures.

She said society should not accept that suicides were something that simply happened in prisons and that the underlying issues that criminalise some of society’s most vulnerable people must be addressed.

Coles added: “We welcome the change of function of the prison and the actions of staff to prevent further deaths. Along with the families of the bereaved, we are relieved the deaths have stopped; but this is too little, too late.

“In 2014, a coroner raised concerns that the staffing levels and failed risk assessment tools could lead to future deaths, yet it took three years, 14 further deaths, inquests and this report before changes were made and still, many of the problems remain.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said that every death in custody is a tragedy and its deepest sympathies were with the families and friends of those affected. He said that, in undertaking his report, Shaw met with some of the families and representatives of the deceased and his report was shared with them.

The spokesman added: “Since the report, the governor has continued to improve safety at Woodhill with a robust and focused approach to deaths in custody. The prison has also recruited an extra 30 officers, following a targeted campaign to boost numbers on the frontline.”

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.