Inspections of HMP Woodhill

The prison was given an inspection in August 2023, the full report can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

Opened in the early 1990s and situated in Milton Keynes, Woodhill has several functions: it is a category B trainer, but also holds a small number of category A prisoners as well as operating as a site for several specialist units and facilities. Although it can hold up 644 adult men when fully operational, the temporary closure of a houseblock due to staff shortage had reduced its capacity to 570, with the actual roll standing at about 514 during the inspection. The focus of our visit was the category B training function, and we will return to inspect the specialist units at a later date.

Following this inspection I wrote to the Secretary of State on 30 August to invoke the Urgent Notification process for HMP Woodhill. In that letter, and in the inspection debriefing paper that accompanied it, I set out the concerns and judgements that had led me to that course of action. Under the Urgent Notification protocol, the Secretary of State commits to respond publicly within 28 days, explaining how outcomes for those detained will be improved. The Secretary of State’s response, for which I am grateful, is published with the Urgent Notification letter and debriefing paper on our website at

This is the fifth time we have inspected Woodhill since 2014 and, as the table below shows, there has been a worrying decline in outcomes across all four of our healthy prison tests. Of perhaps greatest concern is that the jail has attracted our lowest healthy prison test scores for both safety and purposeful activity in our three most recent inspections. It was especially troubling to find that none of the recommendations from our 2021 inspection had been achieved; indeed many of the poor outcomes we had previously identified had, in fact, worsened.

Healthy prison assessments since 2014

              Safety               Respect            Purposeful activity        RRP

2023          1                          2                                1                             2

2021          1                          2                                1                             2

2018          1                         3                                1                             3

2015          2                        3                               3                              3

2014          2                       3                               1                               2

Woodhill was unsafe. In our survey, 71% of prisoners said they had felt unsafe at some point during their stay and almost half said they currently felt unsafe. We found at least 26 prisoners who were self-isolating in their cells in fear for their safety, the prison had the highest rate of serious assaults against staff in the country, and reported incidents of violence at the prison had risen sharply. Consistent with these findings, the use of force against prisoners was the highest in the adult male estate and illicit drug use was widespread, with positive random mandatory drug tests at 38%, the sixth highest rate in the country..

The rate of reported self-harm was again the highest in the adult male estate. There had been two self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection, and over the last 12 months there had been 853 incidents of self-harm involving 133 individuals, a significant increase since our previous inspection. Arrangements to support new arrivals at the prison were not good enough. First night cells were not always clean, prepared or properly equipped, and induction was very poor.

Prisoner frustration, caused by a lack of access to basic amenities and delays in getting anything done, was evident. Emergency cell call bells often went unanswered for long periods of time, and key work (see Glossary) was non-existent. There were many relatively inexperienced staff who lacked confidence and were not sufficiently supported to challenge poor behaviour, and bullying and intimidation by prisoners was rife. Many prison officers told us they feared for their safety and that morale was low.

A chronic shortage of prison officers remained at the heart of the prison’s difficulties; only half of its quota of Band 3 officers were available for operational duties and there was still a 36% shortfall even when staffing resources were supplemented by officers on detached duty from other jails. Almost twice as many officers were leaving than joining, with no expectation that this situation would improve.

The physical infrastructure was run down and neglected. Communal areas of the prison were dirty, and in some parts, filthy. Most wing showers lacked privacy but refurbishment had stalled, and the facilities management service struggled to keep on top of the repair of frequently damaged cells.

The prison was not fulfilling its function as a category B trainer. Although time out of cell had improved since our last inspection, prisoners still spent far too long locked up. Staff shortages meant that work and education were routinely cancelled, and we found that fewer than 25% of the population were attending activities. Prisoners were underemployed and very frustrated by the lack of opportunities for progression. In our survey, only a third of prisoners said their experience in the prison would make them less likely to reoffend in the future, which was much lower than in similar prisons.

Despite these findings, we saw many dedicated staff, working in challenging circumstances, who were doing their very best to care for some complex and vulnerable men. Leadership of this high-risk prison, operating specialist units and holding different categories of prisoner, is a huge challenge, made even harder by a severe and enduring shortage of staff. Local leaders urgently need more support from HMPPS, and the prison needs a complete reset, which first addresses the chronic staff shortage, and then begins to make the prison a safe, decent and purposeful place.


Charlie Taylor
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
September 2023


The inspectors provided a brief list if their significant findings

What needs to improve at HMP Woodhill

During this inspection we identified 16 key concerns, of which six should be treated as priorities. Priority concerns are those that are most important to improving outcomes for prisoners. They require immediate attention by leaders and managers.

Leaders should make sure that all concerns identified here are addressed and that progress is tracked through a plan which sets out how and when the concerns will be resolved. The plan should be provided to HMI Prisons.

Priority concerns

  1. A severe shortage of officers was the fundamental strategic challenge facing the prison. It undermined almost all elements of delivery and limited the amount of time unlocked for prisoners, their access to activities and the care they received.
  2. Levels of violence between prisoners and against staff were among the highest for any prison in England and Wales. An inexperienced staff group lacked the confidence to challenge poor behaviour by prisoners and there were too few incentives throughout the prison to promote pro-social behaviour. The widespread availability of illicit drugs was also a significant causal factor.
  3. Levels of self-harm were the highest in the adult male estate. The care and support given to those in crisis was not consistently good enough.
  4. Prisoners spent far too long locked up. The regime was not working, with activities regularly cancelled, so that even employed prisoners were frequently locked up for more than 21 hours each day. At weekends all prisoners were locked up for almost all the time.
  5. The education curriculum delivered was not sufficiently ambitious or challenging to meet the needs of the prison population.
  6. Many prisoners were frustrated about the lack of opportunities to progress in their sentence. Contact between prison offender managers and prisoners was sporadic and key work was non-existent.

Key concerns

  1. Early days arrangements were not good enough. Reception and first night processes were weak and induction was very poor.
  2. The amount of force used by staff on prisoners was very high. There was too little scrutiny for leaders to be confident that all use of force was justified.
  3. Too many prisoners were segregated for excessive periods, in rundown conditions, with access to only a limited regime and little reintegration planning.
  4. Applications, complaints and consultation processes were weak, and access to basic amenities was poor.
  5. Prisoners who were acutely unwell, including those who had taken an overdose of illicit drugs and were assessed as an emergency, were not receiving care that met the national guidelines for clinical monitoring or escalation of concerns.
  6. Prisoners did not have up-to-date assessments of their medication risks and needs, and the queues at the dispensing hatch were not properly supervised. There was therefore loss of confidentiality and a risk of diversion.
  7. Too few prisoners had sufficient opportunity to raise their levels of skill in English and mathematics, and those with complex needs or with learning difficulties and/or disabilities were not given the necessary support.
  8. Insufficient purposeful activity was offered to occupy prisoners fully for the core week and punctuality at the activity sessions that did take place was poor.
  9. The careers information, advice and guidance arrangements were insufficient to provide prisoners with the help they needed to make informed and realistic decisions about their futures.
  10. Public protection telephone monitoring arrangements were weak.

Return to Woodhill

To read the full reports, go to the Ministry of Justice site or follow the links below: