December 02 2023

HMP Northumberland: another ‘damning indictment’ of the government’s prisons policy

HMP Northumberland: another ‘damning indictment’ of the government’s prisons policy

Kvetch - HMP Grendon: Koestler awards, 2008

HMP Northumberland: another ‘damning indictment’ of the government’s prisons policy

Incidents of violence have doubled at HMP Northumberland over the last three years with close to six out of 10 prisoners feeling unsafe. The privatisation of the category C prison which hold 1,300 prisoners was described by the Howard League for Penal Reform as an ‘abject failure’ after a damning report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons was published yesterday.

The latest report into the prison, which private firm Sodexo took over in 2013, records that violence has risen by 202% compared to an increase of 77% in all UK jails over the same period. In the meantime, the number of prison officers has more than halved from 441 to 192.

The inspections, which took place in July and August, discovered that there were six self-inflicted deaths at the jail in the last three years and few shortcomings identified during previous investigations had been addressed.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, found, 58% of prisoners felt unsafe and 61% said it was ‘easy or very easy’ to get drugs. HMP Northumberland recorded 142 violent incidents, including 29 assaults on staff, in the six months before a July inspection.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, blamed declining standards on the privatisation. ‘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,’ she said. ‘These are serious problems that will spill out into communities, making everyone less safe.’

Inspectors found mismanagement at the jail which posed a ‘clearly unacceptable’ risk to the public, with almost six out of 10 (59%) of prisoners covered by MAPPA (multi-agency public protection arrangements to assess risk and protect the public) being released without confirmation of their MAPPA level.

The Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon also blamed the problems on privatisation.  He called the report ‘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,’ he added.

The latest inspection found the percentage of prisoners testing positive for drugs had risen from 17% in 2014 to almost 34%. Clarke found that one in five prisoners (21%) said they had picked up a drug habit in the jail. ‘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,’ he said. ‘There were plans for the future, but these had not yet come to fruition.’

There had been some attempts by Sodexo to make improvements at the jail. A residential unit took the older inmates away from what they described as ‘the noise, violence and drugs’ using activities such as an Age UK club. This was praised as ‘excellent’. Action was also being taken to reduce drug use by increasing tests and CCTV use.

An HMP Northumberland spokesperson said that 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.’ He continued: ‘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.’