Meeting called over prison safety concerns

HMP Northumberland.
HMP Northumberland.

Urgent talks have been called to discuss safety concerns at a Northumberland prison.

Northumberland County Council Business Chairman Scott Dickinson will have a one-to-one meeting with Sodexo Director of Operations Mike Conway to seek reassurances over the running of HMP Northumberland.

As a responsible employer with a statutory duty for public protection, the council needs to ensure that every effort is being taken to ensure the safety of its employees and others who work there.

Scott Dickinson Northumberland County Council Business Chairman

Coun Dickinson, who is also the ward councillor for the area, particularly wishes to discuss staff safety, as well as hear about the company’s plans for investment in the site.

The Ministry of Justice awarded French firm Sodexo a 15-year contract to operate HMP Northumberland in December 2013 after the merger of HMP Acklington and Castington.

Since then there have been reports of significant staffing cuts and an increasing number of assaults and disturbances at the jail, fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

A report released in January found safety had deteriorated, with a high number of violent incidents.

Coun Dickinson said: “Although an element of violence will always take place in a prison, all indications are that it has escalated since privatisation. The recent inspection report doesn’t offer much comfort either.

“I have been approached by a number of local prison officers about safety concerns, and council employees, including library, health and social care staff, regularly visit and work at the prison.

“I have also met with the police, Probation Service, POA (Prison Officers Association) and others who interact with the prison to get a balanced view. Prior to its privatisation I had no hesitation to visit the prison and visit all areas of it.

“As a responsible employer with a statutory duty for public protection, the council needs to ensure that every effort is being taken to ensure the safety of its employees and others who work there.

“We need to be confident that they are safe and protected in the workplace and that they haven’t been put at any increased risk of violence because of staffing cuts and management decisions.”

He added: “I live less than a mile from the site. It’s a small community and we have lived with the prison for years, sometimes forgetting that it’s even there. Recently this hasn’t been the case and I wanted to ensure that the council is engaging with the company to ensure that the council and locals receive information.

“There have been some recent managerial changes at the prison and I have accepted the meeting to seek reassurances about the progress and plans that are in place to rectify this situation as quickly as possible.”

HMP Northumberland is a category C prison, holding 1,348 male offenders. It is only the second public sector prison to be transferred to a private sector.