As the Governor from 1999 to 2004 at what used to be HMP Acklington, later combined with the young offender prison Castington to became HMP Northumberland, I have watched the recent adverse publicity with considerable sadness.
The prison used to be a good, safe, industrious place, with a large part of that being down to the experienced frontline staff, guiding the inmates towards a range of opportunities to improve their lives. To be absolutely clear, the fault for the current problems cannot lie with the Governor or his staff.
In essence, the concerns seem rooted in a reduction of staff. When the private, French, “Quality of Life Provider” Sodexo took over three years ago, it seemed to set itself on course to cream out a solid core of frontline staff, with many experienced staff lost, so I was told.
This seems to have started relatively soon after it took over from the UK Prison Service.
As I heard all this in the local community, it seemed to me that it did not take a genius to appreciate that the staff reductions would force them to relinquish control, with the inmates inevitably filling the vacuum.
Availability of drugs certainly does not help, but reducing the security department, taking officers off landings, cutting money from the education budget, cutting the Probation Service and reducing workshops all makes for an unsafe environment.
The Panorama programme showed staff who felt unsafe, inmates who felt unsafe, and any notion of rehabilitation gone out of the window.
Quite why we need a French company to come here and show us how to run our prisons is another question, but good custody in the British system has always been about setting a safe environment and presenting opportunities.
Put inmates into a state of anxiety and they are highly likely to come out of prison worse than when they came in.
Sodexo is going to have to be careful that with its staff reductions and threats to staff safety it does not end up at the wrong end of action from the Prison Officers’ Association.
In the meantime, staff have to do the best they can in what looked on Panorama to be a pretty precarious situation.
The local community in the proximity of the prison must be feeling some apprehension.
Staff who have spoken to me over the last 18 months saw this coming a long time ago. Let’s hope everybody can keep their nerve whilst Sodexo puts in place more staff and gets back control of the jail.