Safety concerns still exist at HMP Northumberland, but progress made to tackle issues

HMP Northumberland.
HMP Northumberland.

Safety is still a concern at HMP Northumberland, but progress is being made to tackle the supply of illegal substances, inspectors have said.

The findings were published recently in the Independent Monitoring Board’s (IMB) 2016 report for the Category-C jail, which has been run by private company, Sodexo Justice Services, since December 2013.

Still image from the BBC Panorama documentary.

Still image from the BBC Panorama documentary.

The Acklington-based facility gained unwanted national attention in February when it was at the centre of a shocking BBC Panorama exposé.

The disturbing documentary – featuring undercover reporter Joe Fenton, who posed as a prison custody officer for two months – painted a grim picture of life on the inside.

The explosive programme showed numerous problems at the prison, including inmates high on drugs, lapses in security and staff struggling to cope.

It prompted calls for the Government to terminate Sodexo’s contract.

The IMB’s report – published at the end of last month – states that there are still issues at HMP Northumberland, but adds that steps have been taken to address various problems.

It says: ‘Safety remains a concern, but is receiving proper attention, and progress is being made in areas such as addressing the supply of illegal substances, dealing with incidents related to use of new psychoactive substances (NPS), and protecting those most at risk from bullying.’ It adds that ‘progress has been made on refurbishment of accommodation and security systems’.

The Board does say that the effects of NSP continued to be a concern throughout the year, and there are more than 500 prisoners on some form of treatment for substance misuse, including more than 200 on methadone programmes.

But the report adds that there has been ‘considerable effort’ to reduce levels of substance misuse and the prison has ‘strengthened measures’ to control the flow and use of drugs and other items.

The report says that mandatory drug testing rates ‘suggest that the number of prisoners involved in substance misuse has fallen over the year’.

There has been a 36 per cent increase in the number of finds, and some ‘major discoveries’. The Board ‘regards these as confirmation that the issues are taken seriously, rather than a sign of failure.’

It states that there has been increased scrutiny in the visits hall, the number of banned visitors has increased and protocols for dealing with NPS-related incidents, and suspected swallowing, have been revised and strengthened. The report adds that there has been additional support on the wings, including awareness courses, while 11 prisoners have qualified as facilitators of SMART – a programme to help people manage recovery from addictive behaviour. The report says: ‘These are the first prisoners to gain this qualification in the UK and all those involved are to be commended.’

However, the number of prisoners who self-harm and the number of self-harm incidents rose during the year.

Each house block has a Samaritans phone and the Board was ‘concerned’ that during the year some of these did not appear to be working, and staff were requested to check them.

During 2016 there were seven deaths in custody.

Despite efforts to reduce demand on the care and separation unit, it has been operating at or close to full occupancy of the 18 cells for much of the year. The Board says that while pressures have continued, progress was made in 2016.

The Board praised Soxdexo for addressing ‘historic under-investment’ at the prison. It said that over the last three years ‘significant investment’ has been made in the estate and equipment, but there are still several house blocks still requiring improvements/upgrades to the shower facilities.

In terms of work, vocational training and employment, the Board says that considerable effort has been made over the year to increase the quantity, quality and range.

While the allocation of education places improved in 2016, there is ‘room for improvement in both attendance and punctuality’, with the Board saying that it is not uncommon for around a third of those who have been allocated a place to fail to attend or arrive late.

HMP Northumberland’s capacity is 1,348 prisoners. The report states that there is no overcrowding, but the number of prisoners aged over 55 increased by 15 per cent over the year and the number reporting a disability by 25 per cent.

A prison spokesman said: “We welcome the comments of the report which found progress is being made to address the supply of illegal substances and historic under-investment, and prisoners are being well prepared for release with an increasing number, variety and quality of work options.

“We are pleased the IMB found issues raised in the previous report had been addressed. We take on board comments about the continued refurbishment of the prison, caring for the increasing number of older prisoners and those with disabilities, and ensuring robust assessment of education and healthcare needs for new prisoners.”