HMP Wandsworth loses reform prison status

Transition follows unexpected departure of Ian Bickers in March and may signal end of trial of governors’ sweeping new powers

HMP Wandsworth




HMP Wandsworth.
Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

HMP Wandsworth loses reform prison status

Transition follows unexpected departure of Ian Bickers in March and may signal end of trial of governors’ sweeping new powers

The future of the government’s reform prisons has been thrown into doubt after Wandsworth prison, seen as the flagship of the scheme, lost its status and reverted back to a normal prison.

The transition follows the unexpected departure of the Wandsworth governor in March and may signal the end of the trial which saw governors given sweeping new powers.

In his last email to Wandsworth staff, seen by the Guardian, former governor Ian Bickers said it had been an honour to have been asked to lead such an experienced group of staff and partners, but went on to say that Wandsworth’s reform team would now become part of the the normal work of the prison.

Reform prisons were initiated by former justice secretary Michael Gove, and six were introduced in the prisons and courts reform bill in May last year after being outlined in a major speech by David Cameron earlier that year. The other five reform prisons were Holme House in Durham, Ranby in Nottinghamshire, Kirklevington Grange in Cleveland, and Coldingley and Highdown, both in Surrey.

Under the bill, the six prisons’ governors were given control of their budgets, were able to generate contracts and retain their income. They could decide which education and rehabilitation services to use and could devise new regimes to suit their prisons. It was also announced that governors would be held accountable by a “new regime of transparency”.

The Prison Officers’ Association confirmed that Wandsworth had lost its reform status. Glyn Travis, who sits on the POA’s national executive committee, said Wandsworth staff were informed of the change in the e-mail sent to all staff on 22 March and that the changes were confirmed at a later meeting with union officials.

Travis said: “Wandsworth staff had bought into the reform process and worked well with the governor to implement the reforms. Now, the prison has lost its reform status and once again, staff and prisoners have been left high and dry as this government’s agenda seems to change at the drop of a hat.”

Bickers was the Wandsworth governor when it gained reform status. He was seen by prison reformers as a forward-thinking, innovative practitioner. However, in March a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesperson confirmed the departure of Bickers from the prison but said he was being appointed to a “more senior position” within HM Prison and Probation Service.

Bickers has since become director of immigration removal centres and foreign national prisons, and deputy director for public-sector prisons.

Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that the loss of reform prison status for Wandsworth did not bode well for the initiative in general.

He said selecting Wandsworth as a reform jail was a brave decision because it was a large overcrowded London local prison with a host of complex issues. There had been accusations that prisons were being cherry-picked and that only easy jails would benefit from the new reform status.

“Given Michael Gove was then moved to the backbenches, and there is every chance we may see further ministerial changes after the election, it is hard not to conclude that the reform prisons have withered on the vine. Ultimately, we are only going to see positive change if the government gets serious about easing population pressures on the system as a whole,” Neilson said.

The MoJ declined to comment, citing the purdah rules around the coming general election.

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