Wormwood Scrubs – still ‘filthy and unsafe’

On 1 September the Prisons Inspectorate published its report into an unannounced inspection of Wormwood Scrubs. The inspectorate found that the prison was a dirty and dangerous place to be locked up. Such criticism is nothing new, and the west London prison has an invidious history of brutalising prisoners, both directly, through the violent, thuggish behaviour of some of the staff, and indirectly, by requiring them to live in unhygienic, overcrowded conditions. Nicki Jameson reports.


HMP Wormwood Scrubs was built between 1875 and 1891 by convicts held at the soon-to-be-closed Millbank prison. Originally it held both men and women – the women’s cells on D wing being slightly smaller than the men’s. In 1966, following the government’s rejection of the Mountbatten Report recommendation that all high security prisoners should be located in a single establishment, the Scrubs was designated as one of the small number of ‘dispersal prisons’ which would share this function. As a result, Irish political prisoners were held there throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979 a 60-strong riot squad of specially trained prison officers was used to break up a peaceful protest led by Irish prisoners.

Today, the prison is no longer high security and holds 1,200 remand prisoners going to and from London courts and prisoners serving short sentences or due for release to the local area. 31% of prisoners are foreign nationals, of whom approximately 50 are detained solely under immigration legislation.

Brutality exposed*

In March 1998, The Guardian reported on its front page that a dossier detailing allegations of systematic brutality by Wormwood Scrubs staff against over 50 prisoners during the preceding year had been compiled by solicitor Daniel Machover, and delivered to the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Ramsbotham. The story led to a blaze of publicity around abuses in the Scrubs during the previous decade and set off a chain of criminal and civil litigation. In December 2003 The Guardian reported that following these legal proceedings the Prison Service had admitted 14 prisoners had been assaulted and had paid out £2m in compensation, including £100,000 to a prisoner who was raped by a member of staff. ‘In one incident, an Irish inmate was choked as eight officers beat him, with one shouting for him to call him “English master”. Others were left with broken bones; one was so terrified that he slashed his wrists. On several occasions officers psychologically tortured prisoners by threatening to hang them.’

The Prison Service then commissioned a former governor to produce a secret report. The report was only made public because the governor, Peter Quinn, was so shocked by what he uncovered. Over a period of nine years, more than 160 prison officers had been involved in inflicting and covering up a regime of torture which included savage beatings, death threats and sexual assault. There was collusion at all levels, with managers blatantly falsifying records – paperwork on the day of one assault recorded the staff on duty as ‘Nobody’, ‘Officer Non-existent and Absent’. Quinn’s review concluded there should be a public inquiry but this was categorically refused by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett. The Prison Officers Association supported the call for an inquiry, implausibly maintaining that this would exonerate its members who had been unfairly ‘scapegoated’.

Filthy and unsafe

While the level of overt violence and systematic torture since then may have lessened, the Inspectorate team which visited the prison in May 2014 still found the place to be unhygienic, run-down and dangerous: ‘A number of cells designed for one prisoner held two. The standard of cleanliness and furnishings in many cells was unacceptable. Many windows were broken with some exposed shards, graffiti was widespread and many toilets were filthy. Overall living conditions for many prisoners were poor… outside areas were often strewn with rubbish and other areas in the prison grounds were overgrown and looked neglected.’

There was little opportunity to escape the squalid cells: ‘Many prisoners spent too long locked in their cells during the day. Fully employed prisoners were only unlocked for six hours a day during the week. Unemployed prisoners spent considerably more time locked in their cells.’

Nearly half the prisoners the inspectors spoke to said that they had felt unsafe during their stay and 22% felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. Officially documented use of force by staff had doubled since the previous inspection. During the six months prior to the inspection there had been over 100 recorded assaults on staff or prisoners and over a third of prisoners reported victimisation by staff during that period. There had been six suicides since 2011 – five of them in 2013. Some of these incidents had been investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, who had made repeated recommendations concerning suicide and self-harm prevention measures, none of which had been implemented.

* Guardian articles by Vikram Dodd, 11 December 2003 and 13 November 2006

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014


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