Privatisation has been blamed for exploding levels of violence and drug use at a UK jail.
A new report into HMP Northumberland, which private firm Sodexo took over in 2013, has underlined how violence has more than doubled while the number of prison officers has halved.
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, found 58% of prisoners felt unsafe at some time and 28% of prisoners felt unsafe when an inspection took place in July - “a very high figure by any standards,” he said.
Since the 1,300-inmate jail was taken out of public hands, its frontline staff has shrunk from 441 to 192. Violence has also risen by 202% against an average uplift of 77% in all UK jails over the same period.
Almost two thirds (61%) of inmates said that it was “easy or very easy” to get hold of drugs, Clarke found, and 21% said they had picked up a drug habit in the jail.
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the privatisation reforms and austerity were at the heart of the problem.
She said: “After a year of riots, drug scandals and prisoners dying by suicide in private prisons, today’s report on Northumberland proves beyond doubt that privatisation has been an abject failure for the public.
“Violence has more than doubled. Hundreds of men have acquired drug habits. These are serious problems that will spill out into communities, making everyone less safe.”
Clarke said: “In the face of this grim picture, one would have expected there to be detailed analysis of the violence, leading to a comprehensive violence reduction plan. This was not what we found. There were plans for the future, but these had not yet come to fruition.”
Inspectors found mismanagement at the jail which posed a “clearly unacceptable” risk to the public, with 59% of prisoners covered by MAPPA (multi-agency public protection arrangements to assess risk and protect the public) were being released without confirmation of their MAPPA level.
There have also been six self-inflicted deaths since 2014 and Clarke said few of the shortcomings identified by Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) investigations into these deaths.
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon lays the blame squarely at the door of privatisation.
He said: “This report is yet another damning indictment of the Conservative government’s prisons policy. Since the privatisation of HMP Northumberland in 2013, the number of assaults has increased three fold, way above the national average.
“Staff numbers were slashed in the run up to privatisation and appear to remain at dangerously low levels.”
Clarke did uncover attempts by Sodexo to make improvements at the jail.
A residential unit dedicated to older prisoners saw, which included an Age UK activities club, took more mature men away from what they described as “the noise, violence and drugs.” Action was also being taken to reduce drug use.
But more needed to be done to reduce risk to prisoners, prison officers and the public, Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, said.
“The Director at HMP Northumberland has taken firm action to drive forward progress at the prison,” he said.
“Since the report, the prison has set up a team to specifically review the prison’s management of violence and additional safer custody staff will also help improve the prison’s self-harm response.”
An HMP Northumberland spokesperson said: “Following the Inspector’s visit in July, we have continued to implement the strategies and plans that we had initiated prior to the inspection and we immediately developed an additional action plan to address the issues raised.
“We are pleased the report recognises the on-going commitment from the prison leadership to make improvements, that the majority of prisoners report positive interactions with staff and that prisoners are developing good work skills and high achievement rates in education and vocational training qualifications.
“We continue to work hard to tackle drugs and violence, which are a challenge across the whole prison estate, and we have strengthened our violence reduction team, introduced more drug testing and secured funding for additional CCTV equipment. Also as a priority, we have significantly improved our public protection processes and are working more effectively with probation services.”