Crunch talks have been arranged to thrash out safety concerns at HMP Northumberland.
A one-to-one meeting will take place between the county council’s business chairman Coun Scott Dickinson and Mike Conway, who is director of operations at Sodexo, which runs the Acklington-based prison.
As well as safety concerns at the unit, particularly in relation to staff, the discussions will also focus on the company’s plans for investment at the site.
In December 2013, the Ministry of Justice awarded French firm Sodexo a 15-year contract to operate HMP Northumberland after Acklington and HMP Castington merged.
Since that time, there have been significant staffing cuts at the prison, thought to be in the region of 30 per cent, and an increasing number of assaults and disturbances at the jail fuelled by alcohol and drugs which are reaching prisoners.
A report released in January into HMP Northumberland found safety at the prison had deteriorated in the past two years with a high number of violent incidents.
I have been approached by a number of local prison officers about safety concernsCoun Scott Dickinson
The prison is located in the Druridge Bay ward of Coun Dickinson. He said: “Although an element of violence will always take place in a prison, all indications are that it has escalated since privatisation. The recent inspection report doesn’t offer much comfort either.
“I have been approached by a number of local prison officers about safety concerns and council employees, including library, health and social-care staff regularly visit and work at the prison. I have also met the Police, Probation Service, POA and others who interact with the prison to get a balanced view. Prior to its privatisation, I had no hesitation in visiting the prison and visiting all areas of it.
“As a responsible employer with a statutory duty for public protection, the council needs to ensure that every effort is being taken to ensure the safety of its employees and others who work there. We need to be confident that they are safe and protected in the workplace and that they haven’t been put at any increased risk of violence because of staffing cuts and management decisions.
“I live less than a mile from the site – it’s a small community. We have lived with the prison for years, sometimes forgetting that it’s even there. Recently, this hasn’t been the case and I wanted to ensure that the council is engaging with the company to ensure that the council and locals receive information.
“There have been some recent managerial changes at the prison and I have accepted the invitation to go to the meeting to seek reassurances about the progress and plans that are in place to rectify this situation as quickly as possible.”
HMP Northumberland is a category C prison. It is only the second public-sector prison ever to be transferred to a private sector.
Ministry of Justice data, analysed by the Howard League for Penal Reform Figures and released earlier this week, showed the prison is running at 99 per cent capacity and is now the seventh largest in England and Wales out of 130 prisons, with 1,323 prisoners in January this year. The capacity is 1,341 inmates.