Wandsworth prison life: Decay, drugs and drudgery

Posted: 8th September 2023

Source: BBC News

It has been described as a “dystopian Fawlty Towers” and a “powder keg” waiting to explode, with inmates packed in cramped cells, watched over by a demoralised and threadbare staff.

Daniel Khalife’s escape from Wandsworth prison came as little surprise to both former inmates and staff alike.

Morale is low in a decaying institution in “free fall”, a former head of security told the BBC.

Meanwhile, former inmate Chris Atkins said bluntly: “It is a form of hell.”

‘Crumbling and overcrowded’

HMP Wandsworth is a Category B security prison built in 1851. It currently holds around 1,300-1,500 inmates – almost double what it was originally designed to accommodate.

Mr Khalife’s escape from the kitchens on Wednesday was the first at HMP Wandsworth since 2019, but came after years of warnings and inspection reports painting a dour and chaotic picture of life inside.

One of the latest, published last year by Charlie Taylor, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, described how inmates were locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day.

“One group of prisoners… who came blinking into the sunlight, told me that it was the first time they had been outside for more than a week.”

According to the report, violence was on the rise between inmates and an already hard-pressed and under-experienced staff, whose absence rate hovered around 30%.

“There were not enough staff to make sure prisoners received even the most basic regime,” he said.

Mr Taylor said the “crumbling and overcrowded” complex suffered poor hygiene and vermin infestations.

“Prisoners could often go several days without a shower,” he said. “Despite efforts to control vermin, there was still a major problem with rats, mice and pigeons.”

‘Just waiting for a spark’

Former prisoners and even a former head of security said the combination of inexperienced officers and poor processes made escape all but inevitable.

Ian Acheson, the former head of security at Wandsworth, told BBC Radio 4’s Today that Mr Khalife’s escape was “not entirely surprising”.

“There would have had to have been multiple breaches of human and physical security,” he said.

“Wandsworth, like so many of our flagship prisons, is in free fall,” he said. “On any day 30%, to up to 40% of frontline staff are unavailable to work”.

He said that “by all estimations”, Mr Khalife, who is charged with terrorism offences, should have been in the high-security Belmarsh prison.

Meanwhile Atkins, who spent nine months in Wandsworth for tax fraud, told BBC Radio 5 Live that the escape was waiting to happen.

“It’s a dystopian Fawlty Towers,” he said of the prison. “It’s chaos, it’s understaffed, the staff are very, very young, very inexperienced – they don’t know what they’re doing.

“It’s like a powder keg, just waiting for a spark.

“The processes are very, very old. Shortly before I went to Wandsworth a prisoner escaped because they let him out about eight months early.

“There was a slip-up with the paperwork – everything is done by hand. They actually opened the door and let him go. He was a dangerous armed robber.”

Atkins said he was intrigued to hear that Wandsworth was put in a state of lockdown after Mr Khalife’s escape.

“It’s always in lockdown,” he said. “The majority of prisoners are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. They are so short-staffed. It is a form of hell.”

He said there was little education and drug rehabilitation, despite promises from prison authorities and the government.

“You just lose your mind. Tiny cells – there’s two of you, they’re designed for one person. There’s your loo in there, you’ve got to eat in there.

“If you kept animals there, you’d be prosecuted by the RSPCA. There’d be an outcry if you kept dogs like that.”

David Shipley, another former inmate and now a prison reform campaigner, questioned why Mr Khalife was allowed to work in the kitchens.

“The kitchens are one of the jobs in Wandsworth that are considered a high-security job – you have access to knives and access to outside,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“Any prisoner considered a high risk of escape shouldn’t be working in that environment.

“Food deliveries come into the prison every day. There is supposed to be a process where all those vehicles leaving are supposed to be checked with a mirror.”

He too complained of chaotic management, grime and drudgery.

“It’s probably the worst-run organisation I’ve ever seen. It’s understaffed, it’s filthy.

“There were so few staff, prisoners had to choose between having a shower or seeing the open sky, or clean their cells.”

He said that the lack of staff “means you might not have enough overseeing the kitchen but also those staff won’t necessarily be familiar with who is working there because they get moved around the prison all the time.

“What that means is that they might not have actually known who was supposed to be there. It can take longer to notice someone is missing.”

A former prison officer, who asked to be referred to as Douglas, said that the escape was the result of a wider issue of cuts in the prison service.

“The chickens have come home to roost,” he told 5 Live. “The government slashed the prison service, and society didn’t notice.”

He said that in his experience, prison kitchens were now “totally civilianised” with no trained officers overseeing “strong willed and highly manipulative” prisoners.

“I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before,” he said of Mr Khalife’s escape.

A former inmate and kitchen worker in Wandsworth’s kitchens said that Mr Khalife had “seen an opportunity and just went for it”.

“There are lorries coming in all day in, every day, day in, day out. It’s a security risk,” the former inmate, who asked to be referred to as Gary, told 5 Live

He added that he was surprised someone on terrorism charges was able to work there: “It’s usually low-cat prisoners who get them jobs.”

Rosena Allin-Khan, the Labour MP whose constituency includes HMP Wandsworth, says she raised staff shortages with the justice secretary “many, many months ago”.

Ms Khan said she found that in December last year, only seven members of staff turned up for a night shift to look after 1,500 inmates.

“Undoubtedly when you have situation like this things will happen and people will make mistakes,” she said.

“And now someone is on the loose.”

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said in a Commons statement that the government had ordered investigations into the “grave security breach” at Wandsworth and the security categorisation of Mr Khalife.

“I spoke to the governor of HMP Wandsworth and senior [prison service] leaders to establish what was known about the escape, and seek assurances about the immediate measures being taken to ensure the security of the prison.”

He added: “Escapes from prison are extremely rare and the numbers have declined substantially in the last 10 to 15 years.”He told MPs there had been £100m invested in security improvements since 2019, “which has driven up the finds of drugs, weapons and other contraband including tools which can be used to aid an escape from prison”.

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