Staff safety fears after disturbance at prison

HMP Northumberland.
HMP Northumberland.

Staff, politicians and union bosses have all expressed grave misgivings about staff levels at HMP Northumberland after Friday’s ‘stand-off’.

A disturbance took place when around 50 prisoners refused to return to their cells in one wing of the Acklington prison, which became just the second privatised facility in the country when Sodexo Justice Services took over in December.

It followed an announcement in October that up to 200 jobs could go after Sodexo took control.

One prison officer, who did not wish to be named, told the Gazette there have been a number of incidents recently, including rooftop protests and attempted escapes.

“The whole jail is a powder keg waiting for the spark. There will be more trouble, that’s for sure,” he said.

“It’s a disgrace; staff are kept in the dark, there is no communication between management and staff – we hear things from the inmates before it gets to us – and to top it off, there are another 37 staff leaving this month.

“I do not know how the jail will function or, even worse still, respond to alarm bells or help, as we are at breaking point now.”

One of his colleagues, who also wanted to remain anonymous, added: “The reason it happened was the staffing levels.

“I’m all up for change, I believe the prison service had to change. After the merger of the two prisons (Acklington and Castington), we had too many staff, but now we haven’t got enough.

“There’s two sides to a story and I’m open to change, but it rarely happened before. The last time there was a barricade was about 11 years ago.

“It’s getting dangerous. The convicts aren’t stupid and something will happen.”

The POA (formerly the Prison Officers’ Association) has praised its members for their ‘bravery during a serious disturbance’ with some staff apparently being inside the prison until 1.40am on Saturday, having started shifts at 7.30am on Friday.

Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith has taken up the issue and has sent a series of ‘urgent and detailed questions’ to Sodexo and his Government’s Prisons Minister.

“I have asked what lessons have been learned from the incident and whether prison safety can be retained with such a large reduction in staffing,” he said yesterday, adding that he is also concerned about unsupervised or unescorted movement of prisoners and apparently increasing and organised efforts to get drugs into the prison over the fence.

The county council is also concerned and yesterday leader Grant Davey announced the creation of a working group to look at issues such as privatisation, staffing levels and training.

Coun Scott Dickinson, whose ward contains the prison, said: “Back in October, I raised concerns about staffing levels and Friday’s events suggest that maybe the reductions have been too fast.”

A Sodexo Justice Services spokesman said: “We congratulate all the staff involved in the incident for the professional way in which they resolved the situation.

“There was minimal damage to the affected area and the prison returned to its normal regime by Saturday morning. We are now carrying out an investigation into the incident.”

“We review staffing levels at all our prisons on a regular basis and will continue to monitor them at HMP Northumberland, particularly at a time of change when we are introducing longer working days for prisoners.

“Safety and security of prisoners, staff and visitors is always a priority for Sodexo Justice Services, as independent reports in each of our prisons by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons demonstrate.

“Our other four UK prisons achieved distinctions in last year’s International Safety Awards, held by the British Safety Council, for our commitment to safety, which is so crucial to our business.”