Safety fears as prison jobs cut

HMP Northumberland.
HMP Northumberland.

Staff have raised safety fears as up to 200 jobs are to be axed at a north Northumberland prison.

On Monday, workers at HMP Northumberland were told that posts were being cut when the prison is privatised in December.

As reported in the Gazette in August, HMP Northumberland, in Acklington, will be managed by Sodexo Justice Services from December, having signed a 15-year contract, worth an estimated £250million over its term.

But concerns have been raised about staff safety, with one worker describing the situation as ‘dangerous’.

The Gazette has been told that 120 prison officer jobs are to go, alongside administration roles and other positions.

One member of night staff said: “There is a concern for safety of staff. At the moment, the prison is run on overtime, the amount they are spending on it is outrageous.

“But if they are cutting staff, it is going to get worse.

“It’s dangerous, really dangerous.

“Prisoners have so much time to think about things that you wouldn’t even dream of.

“Something bad is going to happen, without a doubt.

“Everyone is really upset by it all.”

He added that Sodexo will also be axing agency staff, 40 of which currently work at the prison.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has accused Sodexo of ‘placing private profit before public safety’.

A statement said: “The POA insists that Sodexo now provides safe systems of work, risk assessments and staff profiles to ensure that HMP Northumberland is safe, secure and decent for staff, prisoners and the public.

“The POA will not tolerate unsafe working practices and unsupervised prisoners.

“The warehousing of prisoners will not provide the promised rehabilitation revolution.

“Safe, secure and decent prisons are non-negotiable.”

A prison officer said: “I personally think it’s a disgrace, as a serving officer of 14 years, to be sold off to the cheapest bidder who has no values of staff safety.

“We have a capacity of nearly 1,400 inmates who are violent offenders and prolific sexual predators.

“Sodexo are on about removing our batons, yet the potential for violence and disorder are still on the front line everyday we walk through the door.

“It disgusts and upsets me that the amount of inmates is going to stay the same but they are going to decimate the uniformed staff, making it even more unsafe to work there.

“Staff already struggle to respond to alarm bells and incidents as we are so few on the ground.”

Another member of staff added: “HMP Northumberland has seen the departure of numerous staff since the announcement that Sodexo is taking over.

“Now they want to take prison officer staffing levels to what we feel an unsafe level, and ruin hundreds of lives .

“Staff feel undervalued and cheated with the take over.”

MP Sir Alan Beith said he is disappointed that Sodexo was chosen over the public sector bid.

He said: “The prison needs to have enough staff to be safe, to be effective in reducing offending and to ensure there is work for prisoners to do.

He added: “Sodexo need to demonstrate that they can deliver what they promised and for that they need experienced and committed prison staff.”

Coun Scott Dickinson, whose ward encompasses the prison, said: “This announcement will come as a body blow for the local community and yet another example of how this Coalition Government is ignoring Northumberland.

“We clearly need full transparency from both the company and Government to assure the local community that 200 jobs lost won’t put public or staff safety at risk.”

A statement from Sodexo said: “We are currently in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and the recognised unions regarding employment arrangements at HMP Northumberland.

“We have shared our proposed reduction in staffing numbers. We aim to achieve this reduction by voluntary means if possible.

“Formal consultation with employees will commence after December 1, 2013, when HMP Northumberland employees transfer to Sodexo Justice Services.”