Wellingborough prison HMP Five Wells 'getting better' six months after damning report, says chairman of independent monitoring board

The state-of-the-art ‘super’ category C rehabilitation and resettlement prison was designed to house up to 1,680 prisoners
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It’s been two years since Wellingborough's new £253m 'super prison' HMP Five Wells opened to inmates with the promise of a ‘strong focus on rehabilitation’ to stop re-offending.

With its third director (governor) now in place, the volunteers who oversee the private prison’s progress – the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) – have continued to monitor the facility.

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In September 2023, the IMB report on HMP Five Wells highlighted a string of issues in the prison including drugs, food shortages, staff safety concerns and a lack of prisoner work opportunities.

IMB Five Wells Chairman, David Culwick/National WorldIMB Five Wells Chairman, David Culwick/National World
IMB Five Wells Chairman, David Culwick/National World

As the team prepare their next report, IMB Five Wells chairman, David Culwick, who has 24-hour access to the G4S-managed prison, has said things have improved and are looking positive.

He said: “I’m feeling positive. Things are getting better, but it will take more. It’s moving in the right direction. I give full marks to the current director. He has made a significant impact. Decisions are more consistent. When he’s talking to staff or prisoners he uses the same approach.

"One of the big issues is staff recruitment. If you haven’t worked in prison before it takes a long time to get ‘jail craft’. It’s a tremendous learning curve for staff. Why would you work somewhere evenings and weekends? I have seen some really good staff who have had no (previous) experience. There are more senior staff, they are recruiting but it’s about retaining. ”

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Concerns at Wellingborough's £253m 'super prison' HMP Five Wells with drugs, hoo...
HMP Five Wells one of the cells in the Wellingborough prison /National WorldHMP Five Wells one of the cells in the Wellingborough prison /National World
HMP Five Wells one of the cells in the Wellingborough prison /National World
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Mr Culwick, a former social worker, has been a IMB member for more than 15 years at different prisons. Volunteers have free reign to visit any part of the prison, day or night, and speak to staff and prisoners about all aspects of life at Five Wells.

At Five Wells, prisoners can raise issues affecting the whole ‘community’ staff and inmates. Mr Culwick says the incarcerated population is ‘incredibly complex’ ranging from ‘hardened criminals’ to those with mental illnesses. He often talks to prisoners who are scared to come out of their cells.

He said: “We do visits to all the wings. We write reports to the director. We attend the monthly board meetings and if we don’t receive sufficient answers we ask again. One family came to me and said he (a prisoner) was in fear of his life. I went to visit him and asked him why aren’t you coming out? It was because a drug deal had gone wrong. We spend a lot of time dealing with prisoners who have got themselves into debt. They say they need to be protected.”

Recently a programme of integration on two wings saw Vulnerable Prisoners (VPs) being moved into non-segregated wings.

HMP Five Wells in WellingboroughHMP Five Wells in Wellingborough
HMP Five Wells in Wellingborough
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Mr Culwick said: “There is a programme of integration in the prison. VPs, who may, or may not, be sex offenders are all given a label of being a ‘nonce’, it’s a matter of education. People need to be able to live together.”

Each house block houses 240 men across four floors, with 60 residents on each floor. Prisoners' cells contain a bed, chair, desk, tv, drawers, pin board, and a shower, toilet and sink.

Every inmate has a smart tablet that acts as their phone, texting, education, banking well-being and shopping portal. Meals can be ordered on a weekly basis. Shopping for items such as birthday cards and presents can be ordered via the online store, paid for with wages earned in the workshops, or topped-up by family members.

He said: “HMP Five Wells was the first of a new design but there was no gym. That is a number one requirement so they (inmates) can get rid of all that energy.

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“The prison is now working beyond its capacity with some inmates sharing cells designed for one. It is over capacity from the original design. Last week there were 238 spaces left in the whole prison system.”

The 2023 IMB report had noted concerns about the number and range of illicit items found in the prison including illegal drugs being offered to those in the drug recovery unit.

Visitors pass through an x-ray scanner as well as 'pat-down' searches to prevent contraband items being stashed and passed on to residents.

Drugs ‘appeared to be available’ on most house blocks – the wings – delivered into the prison by drones and ‘throw overs’ in items such as tennis balls lobbed over the razorwire-topped fences.

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Reports in the media revealed parties with alcohol being consumed. Mr Culwick revealed that drugs have been smuggled into prison by a variety of means including drones, within clothing and even in children’s paintings infused with the synthetic cannabis known as ‘spice’.

Mr Culwick said: "They (families) would send a picture and it would be laced with spice. No clothing is sent in now and all pictures are photocopied.

"The staff do their best but you can’t shoot the drones down. We need to find where they are being launched from and stop them.”

Radical plans to provide vocational training programmes in the first year had fallen short due to problems with tutor recruitment, lack of equipment and even power supply problems.

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But Mr Culwick says the prison now offers vocational training, work placements and education.

Businesses run from HMP Five Wells include a call centre, print and design shop, forklift truck workshop, a Salvation Army recycling centre, barber’s shop, and an inhouse radio station.

Prisoners wanting to improve their educational attainment can take courses to improve maths and English or even take on an Open University degree.

Mr Culwick says being in prison is not easy and much of the time prisoners just want someone to talk to.

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He said: “Some of these youngsters have nobody who cares for them. It’s a really complex situation. Some of the prisoners are all very ‘experienced’ . You have to avoid becoming ‘conditioned’.”

Mr Culwick will soon welcome a tenth member to his team. IMBs can have up to 16 members each going through the year-long mentoring and training programme.

Questioned why he continues to volunteer in the prison, says wryly, “I don’t like gardening.”