Tyne & Wear

HMP Northumberland: A year on from privatisation

Paul Miller
Image caption Paul Miller, a long-serving officer at HMP Northumberland, took redundancy after privatisation

An MP described it as a "powder keg". A union called it a "tinderbox" and said its members did not feel it was safe. HMP Northumberland, in north-east England, has been under scrutiny ever since it was privatised a year ago and cut a third of its staff. So is the criticism justified?

The company that runs HMP Northumberland insists the prison is under control and says the same number of layoffs would have been had it remained in the public sector.

But a series of incidents, since French multinational Sodexo took over in December 2013, have attracted criticism from staff, MPs and union officials.

Paul Miller was an officer at the 1,300-capacity Acklington jail for 23 years and picked up awards for his service.

"I loved my job. I loved the banter. I had a great rapport with the prisoners. I was proud to wear the crown on the uniform," he said.

He, along with about 200 of the 588 staff, took voluntary redundancy earlier this year.

Image caption Sodexo, the company which runs HMP Northumberland, took over in December 2013

The 48-year-old now runs a photo booth business with his wife Julie but he says if the prison had stayed in the public sector, he would have remained in the service.

"I think it's immoral to run this for money," he said. "Why should somebody make profit out of somebody's misfortune?"

Labour MP Ian Lavery, whose Wansbeck constituency is nearby, said he was "vehemently opposed" to privatisation of the Prison Service.

But the prison was not without shortcomings before the contract was put out to tender. Its last inspection report in 2012 said a third of prisoners were locked up during the working day with nothing to do.

This, says Sodexo, is one of the areas in which it is making progress, as it works to fulfil its commitment to bring more work into the prison.

But the 2012 report also found the prison was relatively safe and "respectful".

Image copyright other
Image caption HMP Northumberland is one of five prisons in the UK run by Sodexo

In a year which saw a group of prisoners take over a wing, a member of staff hospitalised in an assault and a small group of prisoners running riot after fire broke out in six cells, Mr Miller also says one of his friends was headbutted by a prisoner.

Mr Lavery said: "It looks very much as if it's a powder keg. I'm worried a member of staff is going to get seriously harmed."

It is unclear if there has been a genuine increase in violence, or whether there has simply been greater scrutiny since privatisation.

The Ministry of Justice, which holds the figures on the number of assaults, has refused to release them for the period after December 2013.

"Don't get me wrong, it did happen in the Prison Service as well but not in these numbers," Mr Miller said.

"We always felt we were good at interacting with the prisoners and there was a lot of respect both ways."

Image copyright Google
Image caption The prison in Acklington has capacity for about 1,300 inmates

But he believes there are now too few staff to forge relationships with prisoners and keep control of them.

"When I first went to HMP Northumberland, we had 60 prisoners with a senior officer and five officers running a wing," he said.

By the time he left, this had dropped to two officers in charge of a wing with no senior officer, he said.

Frances Crook, chief executive of campaigning charity the Howard League for Penal Reform, said staffing levels were "particularly concerning".

She said 2014 had been "a year to forget" for the prison.

In a statement, Sodexo said it constantly reviewed staffing levels and had hired 27 new officers as a result.

Sir Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP whose Berwick constituency includes the prison and who is chair of the Justice Committee, said staffing was a concern.

Image caption Mr Miller picked up awards in his time as an officer for his work with prisoners

But he pointed out that when the HMP Northumberland contract was put out to tender, the public sector bid also included a planned staff reduction of 200.

"I visit a lot of prisons, some of them are public sector, some of them are private sector and there's good and bad in both," he said.

"The thing that tends to make prisons not work well is the immediate aftermath of any kind of change.

"There has been a general increase in violence across the prison system and it's clearly affected HMP Northumberland."

Staff cuts have been made across the board and government figures recently released showed a 15% increase in attacks on officers across the prison system, since the coalition came into power.

Sodexo sees some of the criticism it has received over its running of HMP Northumberland as unfair.

Image caption According to government figures, there has been a 15% increase in attacks on prison officers nationwide

In a statement, the company said: "We're disappointed with the negative perception of HMP Northumberland when our experienced staff do fantastic work in a challenging environment.

"Our highest priority is to run a safe prison and this is never an area of compromise.

"Criticism of staffing levels has taken the focus away from HMP Northumberland as a working prison.

"We are committed to reducing reoffending and more prisoners are now working in the prison for longer hours than ever before as part of our resettlement strategy."

The public will get a sense of the current situation in the jail next month, when inspectors who visited in September publish their report.

As staff cuts take place across UK prisons, the conclusions they reach may provide valuable lessons for the whole system.

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