A super prison serving Shropshire was today criticised by inspectors in another blow to its private operator G4S.
HMP Oakwood in Featherstone, near the M54, can hold 1,600 prisoners and was created as part of a reorganisation that saw the closure of Shrewsbury’s Dana jail.
Inspectors found there were high levels of violence within Oakwood. It had inexperienced staff and high levels of self-harm.
In addition, the jail – dubbed “Jokewood” – urgently needed to address its approach to its near-300 sex offenders, many of whom were due for release without their offending having been addressed.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons made the findings during a surprise visit to the jail.
Oakwood is a training prison for category C prisoners. The inspection found there was clear evidence of drug and alcohol use.
One in seven prisoners developed a drug problem while serving time at the p, the report revealed – as it emerged that inmates had told inspectors: “You can get drugs here but not soap.”
The report found that too many prisoners at the jail felt unsafe and levels of violence were high, levels of self harm were high and there was ‘clear evidence’ of illicit drug and alcohol use.
It also found prisoners were unable to access basic facilities such as cleaning materials and that staff and prisoner relationships were not respectful.
The £150 million super jail in Featherstone opened last year.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “It is well-known in prison circles that this institution is referred to as ‘Jokewood’ by prisoners and staff across the system, but this isn’t a joke – it is deeply serious.”
But bosses at Oakwood said they had already taken steps to make improvements.
Prisoners also had little confidence in staff to act consistently or to get things done.
It said many staff were ‘passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion’ while well over a third of prisoners were locked up during the working day and just over half were in activity at any one time.
Overall, inspectors have branded what they found at the Featherstone jail as ‘very concerning’.
Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, today said: “There is a lot to do before Oakwood is operating anywhere near effectively.”
He said the prison had a hard working management and staff team in place, while a new director had recently been appointed.
“But the prison urgently needed a plan to retrieve the situation and there were real risks if matters were allowed to drift,” he added.Oakwood opened in April 2012 and has 1,600 inmates but a new director was appointed at the prison earlier this year.
John McLaughlin, prison director, has already vowed to ‘turn around’ the prison after it was rated by the Ministry of Justice as ‘of serious concern’. It was one of just three of 134 prisons in the country to receive the rating.
Speaking at the time, he said: “We are working hard with our colleagues and partners to turn this around and we are confident when they next visit we will be delivering high levels of service across the board.”
Today’s report is the third to criticise the jail in the past two months.
Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management service, 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.
“The Chief Inspector has made clear there is much more to do to achieve the high standards we expect but operating systems are now fully established and I am confident that the improvements will be achieved. We will work with G4S and continue to monitor performance at Oakwood closely over the coming months.”
Bosses at G4S, which runs the prison, said steps had already been taken to make improvements. Jerry Petherick, managing director for G4S custodial and detention services, said there had been a reduction in the amount of drugs entering the prison, the use of force was reducing and better care and sentence plans were being put in place.
“We are also working with the Ministry of Justice and the healthcare and education providers, who do not report to us, to addr-ess the issues raised in this report,” he said.
But MPs today said the report was ‘deeply disturbing’. Gavin Williamson, MP for South Staffordshire, said the main priority had to be the safety of the people who worked there.