A Northumberland prison with more than 1,300 inmates has been taken over by a private firm.
Yesterday marked the start of new era for HMP Northumberland in Acklington as Sodexo Justices Service took over the reins from Government in what has been much criticised decision.
The firm has a 15-year management contract - worth an estimated £250m - and bosses claimed it would save the taxpayer £129m, but 200 jobs will be lost.
But the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) raised concerns over safety fears saying the move could result in “escapes and riots”.
The 40-year-old institution was formerly two separate prisons located just a few hundred metres apart - namely, HMP Acklington and HMP Castington. The merger of the two prisons was announced in 2010 and work began in April 2011 to merge all of the functions and it was renamed HMP Northumberland.
It is a Category C jail for inmates, including vulnerable sex offenders, who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who are not thought to be capable of attempting to escape.
Joe Simpson, spokesman for the POA, said he believed reducing staff by 200 to 380 could lead to attempted break-outs.
He said: “We’re talking about prison staff who are going to go away from the supervision of prisoners.
“There could be a riot and someone escaping - that’s the worst case scenario.”
Acklington village resident Barbara King has also said she fears what the impact of cutting staffing levels at the jail could have on the local community.
She said: “How are they now going to control these prisoners - if they are going to reduce the staff - who is going to supervise the prisoners?
“We’ve got an elderly population in the village - it doesn’t really bear thinking about the repercussions of reducing staffing levels.”
However, Sodexo Justice Services has attempted to allay concerns saying it had more than 20 years experience running prisons in the UK.
A company spokesman said reducing staff would “in no way compromise security” or the efficient running of the prison.
He said the firm was confident of running a secure prison with a regime that “promotes rehabilitation”.
It was at the beginning of last year when the Ministry of Justice announced the privatisation plans and bidding for the contract to take over HMP Northumberland began.
The move was met with anger from many in the region who wanted to keep the prison in public hands.
Matt Spencer, who was the governor of the prison, took the lead in compiling the public sector bid to try and retain the management of the jail but this was unsuccessful.
In November last year, Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith joined unions and prison reform groups in criticising the move, describing it as a kick in the teeth for staff.
Speaking about HMP Northumberland - which is the combination of former young offenders’ institution Castington and the Acklington adult training prison - Sir Alan said: “This decision is a kick in the teeth for the prison staff and management who have successfully merged two prisons into one.
“It was a serious mistake to subject the prison to market testing while the merger was still taking place.
“I do not want to see the mistakes and disasters of the East Coast and West Coast rail contracts repeated at HMP Northumberland.”
HMP Northumberland is made up of 15 house blocks, all with single cell accommodation.