A prison officer at HMP Northumberland has told an undercover reporter 'we have lost control of the jail', as shocking footage reveals major lapses of security, intoxicated prisoners and beleaguered staff.
In tonight's episode of BBC Panorama, a journalist experiences life inside the Acklington-based Category C adult prison. He discovers how inmates are effectively running the prison and smuggling in drugs and finds prisoners who are blatantly high or drunk.
Panorama, the world's longest running current affairs TV programme, also reveals how some prison officers don't feel able to maintain control and are feeling at risk themselves.
One member of staff says there is 'no discipline at all, [we have] lost control of the jail, yes they go behind the doors but they run the jail, they do because they get whatever they want whenever they want it' and the undercover reporter is told: 'you will be assaulted, one way or another you will be assaulted in your career.'
The prison has been run by Sodexo Justice Services since 2013. A number of officers say that they feel overwhelmed, unsafe and unable to respond to situations. One officer tells Panorama that 'a lot of times stuff happens, but I can’t respond in the way I’d want to because there’s not the back up there - I don’t feel safe, ever.'
During his time at the prison the undercover reporter, who went in as an officer, witnesses widespread use of the drug Spice; a synthetic drug many times more potent than marijuana, which can provoke hallucinations, panic attacks, disorientation and violence.
There have been 58 prison deaths in England and Wales linked to the drug. Officers say they don’t always call a nurse when prisoners react badly to Spice because it happens too frequently.
The undercover filming captures one incident where a senior prison custody officer is seen on the ground, shaking and having a fit after inadvertently inhaling the drug which was being smoked by prisoners.
The programme, which airs at 8.30pm on BBC One, found evidence of major breaches of security at the prison. On the day the undercover reporter began work at the prison, staff found 2.5kg of Spice in cells on a house block or wing. Officers have told BBC Panorama they believe the whole house block should have been locked down and searched, but it wasn’t.
BBC Panorama’s undercover reporter also discovered that alarms on the outer doors of another house block were not working. A hole was discovered in an adjacent internal security fence. It appears that this breach allowed inmates to collect packages thrown over the outer perimeter wall at night.
HMP Northumberland is a training prison – inmates are supposed to be at work, training or education. BBC Panorama filmed evidence that called the value of some classes into question. During one employability skills class, three inmates were filmed colouring in pictures of the children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig.
Sodexo told BBC Panorama: 'We are proud of those staff at HMP Northumberland who do a professional job in such difficult circumstances. Security and the safety of our prisoners and staff are our top priority, which is why we have made significant investments in these two areas over and above the contract requirements.
'This has included £3million in a new fire safety system, additional CCTV and improved security technology. We have also recruited an additional 37 staff above the funded headcount. At the time of broadcast we had not seen the footage but after viewing the programme we will of course investigate where necessary and take appropriate action.'
Sir Martin Narey, advisor to the British government and former Director General of the Prison Service of England and Wales tells Panorama: 'Prisoners colouring Peppa Pig or anything similar is inexcusable. The challenge for prisons is to make classroom activity much more useful. Teaching prisoners numeracy and literacy to make them employable. The art of reducing re-offending is not complicated, if you get somebody employable and get them into a job, the probability of them not going back to serious crime is hugely increased.'
Sir Martin has not seen any of BBC Panorama’s secret footage. He said: 'If we take people and lock them up and don’t use that period when they are literally captive, to try to do something, which makes it less likely that they’ll go and burgle someone’s house when they get out then we’re just losing a golden opportunity.'
Ministry of Justice told BBC Panorama: 'These are extremely serious allegations which are being urgently investigated. The Justice Secretary has been clear that levels of violence and self-harm in our prisons are too high which is why we are investing an extra £100million annually to boost the frontline by 2,500 officers. Every officer will be responsible for a case load of six offenders, making sure all prisoners get the support needed to quit drugs and get the education and training that will help turn their lives around.
'These are long-standing issues which will not be resolved in weeks or months but we are determined to make our prisons places of safety and reform. We have robust processes in place to closely monitor and manage private contractors and will not hesitate to take action when standards fall short.'
Novus, which provides many of the educational services at HMP Northumberland, including the employability skills class mentioned above, told BBC Panorama: 'At Novus, we take any feedback extremely seriously and have robust internal checks and approval procedures in place to provide our learners and stakeholders with the best and most appropriate educational services for their specific needs. We have looked into the points raised and have compiled our findings into a report that we have provided to the Commissioner at the Ministry of Justice.'
A blurb for the episode, entitled Behind Bars: Prison Undercover, states: ‘An undercover investigation reveals the reality of life behind bars in Britain’s crisis-hit prison system.
‘Footage recorded by a reporter also working as an officer at a Category C adult prison shows how inmates are effectively running the prison, with many of them off their heads on drugs and drink.
‘It also reveals how prison officers don’t feel able to maintain control and how they are at risk themselves. In one incident a senior officer is seen on the ground, shaking and having a fit after accidentally inhaling the drug spice being smoked by prisoners.’
Over the last few years, the prison has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons and Northumberland MPs Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Guy Opperman and Ian Lavery have all raised concerns.
Last summer, a report published by the Independent Monitoring Board raised a number of issues about the prison, listing substance misuse as its most serious area of concern. But the report did praise aspects of the jail and said that welcome and encouraging progress had been made on safety.
The document was released a month after the Gazette reported staff concerns about safety at the prison, with one guard fearing it would only be a matter of time before someone was killed.