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Former chaplain critical of prison-system ‘failure’

17 May 2024

Thomas Nugent/Creative Commons

HM Prison Wandsworth

HM Prison Wandsworth

A FORMER Quaker chaplain at HM Prison Wandsworth, in south-west London, is not hopeful of an immediate improvement in conditions — despite a letter from the Chief Inspector of Prisons to the Justice Secretary calling for urgent changes to combat “systemic and cultural failures” at the prison.

Liz Bridge volunteered at the prison for seven years, serving as a Quaker chaplain and running a charity providing amenities for prisoners. After admitting to making several payments to inmates of less than £25, through the prison payment system, she was banned from the site last autumn.

Deficiencies at the prison include a shortage of clothing for inmates, and unreliable access to medical support, she said.

A shortage of staff contributes to the locking up of the men for most of the day, in cells designed for single, but adapted for double, occupancy. This created a “terribly vicious cycle”, Liz Bridge said, in which oppressive conditions lead to increased violence and self-harm.

There had been “shocking decline” at Wandsworth, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said last week. “There was a degree of despondency amongst prisoners that I have not come across in my time as Chief Inspector.”

Most prisoners would spend more than 22 hours a day locked in “cramped” cells, and living conditions in the “badly overcrowded” prison were “very poor”: more than two-thirds of the prisoners reported that they felt unsafe.

Issues stemmed from poor leadership “at every level”, including the Ministry of Justice, he said. Prison staff were “often fighting against a tide of cross-cutting, intractable problems that require comprehensive, long-term solutions”.

In a letter to the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, on Wednesday of last week, Mr Taylor invoked the “urgent notification” process, which requires a response from Mr Chalk within 28 days.

Mr Taylor reported that “inexperience across every grade of operational staff was preventing them from bringing about much-needed change.”

The Governor of HM Prison Wandsworth, Katie Price, resigned after an unannounced inspection at the end of April. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said that she had given notice before the inspection.

To turn the prison around would take a political will that was currently lacking, Liz Bridge suggested, referring to the size of the prison population as an insuperable barrier. “We’ve got to have some sort of conversation as a society about incarceration levels and the culture of prisons.”

With a General Election expected this year, she said, it was important that people concerned about prison conditions “ask what is going on behind the wall”.

Mr Taylor’s report was “deeply concerning”, the Prisons Minister, Edward Argar, said, in reponse to a request for comment.

“It is clear that on top of the additional support we’ve already provided since September, to improve safety and security, including nearly £1 million of upgrades, we need to go further still.

“In the coming weeks, we will be strengthening the management team with extra experienced staff to provide the leadership, culture change, and training needed to turn Wandsworth around. In the interim, we are deploying more staff, including prison officers, to the prison, and will set out further action shortly.”

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