Living in the Shadow of Wandsworth Prison

Neighbours hear inmates screaming and see drones flying in contraband

Wandsworth Prison. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

September 12, 2023

People living in the shadow of HMP Wandsworth claim they see drones attempting to smuggle in contraband and hear inmates screaming, but say they still feel very safe in the neighbourhood. Residents living close to the prison, on Heathfield Road, said they didn’t feel worried after Daniel Khalife allegedly escaped, but raised concerns about staffing levels and conditions for inmates.

Khalife, a former British Army soldier, is charged with escaping the prison on Wednesday morning (6 September) by strapping himself to the underside of a food delivery lorry using a material “which may have been from bed sheets,” before being arrested on a canal towpath in Northolt at 10.41am on Saturday (9 September). Prior to his escape, Khalife had been on remand at Wandsworth Prison after being charged with terror offences in January.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has announced an independent investigation into Khalife’s escape. He said preliminary inquiries had determined the relevant security protocols and staffing levels were in place at the time, but that investigations will establish whether those protocols were followed to the extent they should have been.

Mr Chalk said around 40 inmates at HMP Wandsworth had been moved to other sites “out of an abundance of caution” amid questions over whether Khalife should have been held on remand at the category B prison. An inmate was also stabbed at the prison on Sunday (10 September), days after Khalife absconded, in an incident thought to be between prisoners. The Met Police said no arrests have been made and inquiries into the circumstances of the attack are ongoing.

Wandsworth residents living close to the prison told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) they still felt secure but had concerns about the prison. Maria, who did not wish to give her surname, has lived close to the prison since 2014. The 44-year-old said the area felt “really safe” when she first moved in, but claimed she slowly started to notice “more drones”, believed to be carrying contraband, and “more dodgy people” hanging around.

She told the LDRS, “We’ve had some people looking for drones stuck in trees, things like that. But in general, I’ve felt safe, I would say.

“But there is a lot of noise from the prison, this is what I’ve been complaining about, which does make you feel less safe in the sense for my kids because they can hear them screaming: ‘I’m going to f***ing kill you, you’re a junkie, you’re so dead’. Things like that we can hear really clearly.”

In one incident, she claimed, she heard an inmate “screaming so much for about three months… ongoing all day, all night”.

Maria said she was not shocked by Khalife getting out of the prison and claimed “there’s never any security around”. She said, “It doesn’t surprise me, honestly. I just keep on hearing they have [such] low staff in there. We have some [former] prison workers who live here say that, compared to when they used to work there, there were so many more people per prisoner, but now they’re just understaffed.”

Wandsworth Prison. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Wandsworth Prison. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

A report from Wandsworth’s Independent Monitoring Board published in September 2022 found that there was a “staffing crisis”, “wholly inadequate physical conditions” and “incidents of violence at alarming levels”.

A 58-year-old woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said her family loves living in the area and described it as a “very safe place”. She said she had never been worried about living nearby the prison, but that it is “unpleasant because you hear [prisoners] screaming and stuff and shouting and being noisy”.

The local added, “We have loads of drone stuff and people chuck things over the wall and I know they try to stop [it], they’ve got new cameras now which are meant to be quite good.”

She was also concerned about conditions at the prison. She claimed staffing levels were “really low” and that she had seen pictures of cells which looked “disgusting”.

She said, “I feel sorry for the prisoners and, it is like, if they had more money there would be so much [more they could do].” She added, “There’s always consequences, but it can’t be a place to rehabilitate.”

She said she believes changes will have to happen at the prison following Khalife’s alleged escape “because the world is watching”. She added, “I really hope they close it down or cut it in half – have less prisoners and then maybe they’ll have less crime.”

A 76-year-old woman who has lived in the area since 1975, who wished to remain anonymous, also claimed, “There’s not enough staff to watch [the prison] – that’s the trouble with it. There’s no staff like there used to be.”

Residents said many homes around HMP Wandsworth used to be occupied by prison officers, but that many had moved out. People who claim to be former officers at the prison, and still live in the area, told the LDRS they were not concerned about living nearby. A 63-year-old man, who wished to remain anonymous, said he worked at the prison for 30 years from 1988 to 2018. He described the neighbourhood as “a completely quiet, safe environment”.

The local said, “It certainly doesn’t give me any anxieties, there’s no suggestion that we’re going to have people climbing over the wall every couple of weeks.”

He also claimed he sometimes sees drones in the area, to deliver contraband to cell windows, “always [in] the dead of night”. He said, “What was a common occurrence a few years ago before the sophistication of the drones, we’d just have young boys just queueing up down the side and just chucking stuff over.”

Another 63-year-old man, who wished to remain anonymous, said he worked as an officer at the prison in 1987 and was not “worried” about living nearby. He said, “Anybody who gets out, they’re not going to hang around here. He’ll be gone, as far as possible, there’s too many cameras.”

Khalife denied all charges against him at the Old Bailey in July. In a statement after his escape, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) Steve Gillan, said, “Wandsworth is a typical example of what life is like for serving prison officers operating in a stressful and violent workplace with inadequate staff levels caring for over 1,600 prisoners at that establishment.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said, “We have significantly improved conditions at HMP Wandsworth, including new windows, repairs to the roof and a new healthcare unit.

“We have also invested £100 million into prison security to clamp down on contraband across the estate and are recruiting thousands more prison officers focussed on rehabilitating prisoners, cutting crime and protecting the public.”


Charlotte Lillywhite - Local Democracy Reporter