Serious concerns have been raised about substance misuse at HMP Northumberland, while the number of self-harm and violent incidents rose last year – a new report states.
The document was published recently by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), reviewing the Acklington-based unit’s performance in 2015.
The IMB raises a number of issues at the Sodexo Justice Services-run Category C facility and lists substance misuse as its most serious area of concern.
But the report does praise aspects of the male adult prison and says that welcome and encouraging progress has been made on safety.
The IMB states: ‘Despite intense security efforts and additional support offered to prisoners, the level of substance misuse in the prison remains an area of serious concern.
‘There has been progress in 2015. The Board anticipates further progress in 2016 and acknowledges that this is a complex problem.
‘It would be naïve to expect a quick solution and it remains the Board’s most serious area of concern.’
The publishing of the review coincides with Sodexo launching an investigation following an incident involving two members of prison staff, but the company said it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.
The IMB is responsible for monitoring day-to-day life in the prison and ensuring proper standards of care and decency are maintained. Board members made 622 visits to the prison in 2015.
As well as substance misuse, the report states that self-harming is also a worry, with the number of incidents increasing by around 20 per cent in comparison to 2014.
But the Board ‘has been impressed with the caring way that individual incidents of self-harm are handled’ and says that the number of self-harm incidents at the prison is lower than those experienced nationally.
It has also welcomed the introduction of two close-observation cells on house blocks so that prisoners at risk of self-harm can be better handled.
The report states that during 2015 ‘safety continued to receive a high level of attention’ and ‘specific actions are being taken to address the behaviour of the worst offenders and to reduce drug supply’.
The IMB adds that ‘measures of violence, disruptive behaviour, drug use and self-harm continue to fluctuate, and safety will remain an important area of focus in 2016, but the trends are in the right direction. The progress that was made in 2015 is encouraging and should not be under-estimated.’
The Board adds that considerable work is being done in this area and will be monitored closely throughout 2016.
Pressures on the Separation and Care Unit (SACU) were of concern to the Board through 2015 and it is anticipated that this area will continue to require close scrutiny for the foreseeable future.
The report states: ‘The occupancy of the SACU fluctuated throughout the year which caused considerable pressure on staff when there was a number of difficult and disruptive prisoners there at the same time.
‘Demonstrated levels of violence have gone up but are more easily managed if numbers in the SACU are at, or near, to the target occupation number of 14.’
The IMB also states that recruitment of sufficient mental health staff ‘was a challenge throughout 2015’. It is aware that efforts are being made to address the underlying recruitment issue, ‘but the problem shows little sign of easing’.
The Board does praise work being done at the prison, including ‘significant progress’ in creating employment opportunities for prisoners and the development of a ‘very successful’ day-care facility for older prisoners.
The report states that after a year of change in 2014, the prison ‘settled down’ in 2015 ‘to ensure it provides a safe and decent environment’ and some adverse publicity by the local media ‘has not always been justified’.
The IMB adds: ‘Most of the concerns raised by the Board in 2014 have either been resolved, or significant progress has been made. Progress in safety and employment is particularly welcome.’
A HMP Northumberland spokesman said: “We welcome feedback from the IMB, recognising the prison for its safety, the professionalism of staff and the increase of employment opportunities for prisoners.
“The report also found some local media scrutiny of the prison was not always justified. The report makes recommendations on local issues, such as those around the management of the SACU, and national issues about the safety and wellbeing of prisoners and staff, and we have already implemented an action plan which addresses these areas.
“While we are not directly responsible for healthcare, including mental health, we are supporting the providers and NHS England to address the issues raised in the report.
“We were pleased to see most of the concerns raised by the IMB in the previous report had either been resolved, or significant progress had been made.”