Safety fears raised over staff levels at Northumberland prison

HMP Northumberland.
HMP Northumberland.

Grave concerns about safety at HMP Northumberland have been raised by prison staff – with one guard fearing it will only be a matter of time before someone is killed.

In damning claims about the Acklington-based unit, a number of workers have contacted the Gazette to say that morale is low and staffing levels are ‘down to the bone’ following cuts.

Worried officers say they face a battle against the smuggling in of drugs and phones, with one source saying that inmates have access to more mobiles than are in an 02 shop.

The comments come after a guard was attacked by a prisoner towards the end of last month.

Sodexo Justice Services, which has run the Category C unit since December 2013, described it as an assault and said the guard in question did not require medical attention. But a number of workers at the site, who wanted to remain anonymous, have said this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Our sources claim that the guard had a homemade knife held to his throat, was taken hostage and had his keys taken off him. They add that this has led to locks being changed at the prison, with one employee claiming this has cost more than £1.5million.

Sodexo has continued not to give any specific details about the ‘assault’ and said the incident is the subject of a police investigation.

The company says it is replacing some locks in specific areas of the prison as a precautionary measure. The firm did not comment on the cost of the scheme, but said it is taking appropriate measures to maintain safety and security at the site, which ‘remain our top priority’.

Sodexo said it is running a review of staffing arrangements, which was commissioned before recent incidents.

Speaking to the Gazette, one member of staff at the prison, said: “We are heading for an iceberg and I fear for my colleagues. It is only a matter of time before somebody is badly hurt or killed. The situation is dangerous for staff, prisoners and the community at large.”

Another said: “Staff morale is low and they don’t want to be here at the moment. Incidents have increased and it is down to the low levels of staff which is down to the bone. The staff are totally compromised.”

It isn’t the first time that concerns have been raised about safety at the prison. In 2014, probation officers’ union Napo branded it a ‘tinderbox jail’ after around 200 jobs were cut following Sodexo’s takeover.

Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that she has been in close contact with the prison’s director, Tony Simpson, ever since concerns were raised in 2013/14, as the prison was privatised.

She admitted the transition had been difficult and said that she has recently taken Prisons Minister Andrew Selous MP to the site so he can understand the issues she has raised with him. She told the Gazette: “While the numbers of staff in the prison are above the National Offender Management Service number, the design of the prison and its large acreage means it is more difficult to manage some of the prisoner issues. I will ensure that the Minister is fully aware of incidents and they are investigated, despite the prison being in private management and not under government ownership.”

Reflecting on the privatisation of the prison, she said that she thought the direction of travel at the unit ‘is good’, pointing to increased opportunities for inmates to develop their skills, but she admitted that the staff, ‘who are doing really good work’ need more support.

She said that she is working with the Prisons Minister to develop new technology to scan visitors to identify a range of modern drugs that are being smuggled into prisons across the land. She said that she would look to see if this would be helpful in HMP Northumberland’s case.

Yesterday, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery met Mr Selous MP and he is due to meet Mr Simpson today. Mr Lavery said: “The situation at the prison has gone beyond serious and following recent events has become a grave concern to my constituents and others in the region.

“Action needs to be taken due to the alarming nature of incidents that have been raised with me by members of staff, family and the public, some of which have already been reported in the Press. The safety of staff, prisoners and the general public must be of paramount importance. The current staff shortages and poor staff morale are not acceptable.”

A Sodexo spokesman said that Mr Simpson is looking forward to discussing Mr Lavery’s concerns and the MP has been invited to the prison.

The prison is in Coun Scott Dickinson’s Druridge Bay ward. He said: “We’re concerned about the significant difficulties that Sodexo is experiencing at the prison site. If communities can’t be assured that the company can keep them secure then there is a major issue for the company to address.”

Coun Dickinson has called for Sodexo to have ‘a transparent line of communication with elected representatives in the area’ to deal with these issues, build public trust and develop a forum where issues can be resolved.