The jail from which former soldier Daniel Khalife escaped “really needs closing”, the prisons watchdog said.
Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said “in an ideal world” Wandsworth would be shut, but “there are only just enough prisons” for the population of inmates.
Wandsworth prison’s performance was rated a “serious concern” and watchdogs had issued a string of warnings about the jail in the past year before Khalife escaped.
The category B reception and resettlement men’s prison, which opened in 1851, is one of only nine jails out of 119 in England and Wales whose performance has been called into question recently.
Governor Katie Price presides over the Victorian jail, which holds about 1,600 defendants appearing at London courts and offenders due to be released, in five wings.
Mr Taylor told Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge on Sky News: “When you find a prison like Wandsworth, it really needs closing. Ultimately, it’s not a suitable prison.”
But, he added: “You need jails because you need to service the courts. We’ve actually got a crisis at the moment in prisons just in terms of population places.
“So there are only just enough prisons, places available, at the moment for the number of prisoners who are coming in.”
Mr Taylor said staff shortages are “the source of many problems” at HMP Wandsworth.
While it is “concerning when anybody escapes from prison” and they are “now very rare”, the nature of the allegations against Khalife made this case “extremely concerning”, he added.
Khalife, 21, who was awaiting trial after allegedly planting a fake bomb at an RAF base and gathering information that might be useful to terrorists or enemies of the UK, was discharged from the Army in May 2023.
He is believed to have escaped by strapping himself on to the bottom of a delivery lorry after leaving the prison kitchen in a cook’s uniform.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Mr Taylor said it “should be standard practice” for vehicles entering and leaving the prison to be checked and a prisoner has to earn a “certain level of trust” in order to be allowed to work in a kitchen.
Prisons have two sets of gates to go through to access what is known as the “sterile” area for vehicles entering or leaving.
Inmates are not allowed in those areas and there are “strict rules” on which gates can be opened, and both sets of gates cannot be opened at the same time.
Standard security measures would include CCTV surveillance footage being fed back to a control room, but also mirrors on a roller to run underneath and on top of vehicles.
Mr Taylor said: “Something obviously went wrong in terms of security, and that will come out over time.
“But the issue that we are particularly concerned about is there are too many prisoners in Wandsworth for the amount of staff who are there. And that ultimately is the source of many of the problems in the jail.”
In the Annual Prison Performance Ratings for 2022/23, published in July, Wandsworth was among nine rated as a “serious concern”.
Its overall performance score, based on a range of measures including security, rehabilitation and training, and expressed as a proportion of 100%, was 46.4% – one of the lowest out of all 119 prisons.
Wandsworth was given the same “serious concern” rating in 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19.
Both Mr Taylor and the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) raised concerns about staffing levels, among other issues, in reports published last year.
Mr Taylor said of the “completely overcrowded” and vermin-infested site that his last inspection showed Wandsworth had high numbers of “non-effective” staff – which means they are off work for reasons including sickness and training.
“It was definitely one of the worst (prisons) we’d come across and they had real problems in having enough staff in place and of course, that immediately is a big issue for the prison because it means that all the systems in the prison are put under strain as a result of it.
“What a prison should do is prioritise security over everything else, because that’s its predominant function, but if you have got very big shortages of staff that inevitably is going to be an issue,” he said.
The latest Ministry of Justice figures show there were eight prisoner escapes in England and Wales in the 12 months to March 2023, none of whom remained still at large 30 days after escape.
This is down from 12 escapes in the year to March 2022, two of whom remained still at large 30 days after escape.
Of the eight escapes in 2022/23, one was from Bedford prison and the other seven were from contractor escorts.
The person who escaped from Bedford was not a Category A prisoner and was caught within 30 days.
Absconds, defined as escapes from open prisons, are recorded separately.