An investigation has been launched after prisoners staged a fierce stand-off with guards at a North East jail.
More than 50 prisoners at HMP Northumberland in Acklington sparked a disturbance at just after 7.30pm on Friday. Reports suggest there was a stand-off, with inmates reportedly refusing to go back to their cells and riot officers on standby. It is not believed anyone was injured.
Prison bosses at Sodexo, which took over the category C 1,300 inmate jail last year, are to investigate. However, politicians and a trade union have claimed the company’s decision to cut 200 jobs at the site, which houses vulnerable sex offenders, may have been to blame for the disturbance.
Concerns over the staff reduction levels were raised in parliament earlier this month. The prison operator has insisted it has “no concerns”.
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith has vowed to take the matter up with the prisons minister as well as Sodexo. He said: “I was actually in a meeting near to the prison with prison officers and Liberal Democrat campaigner Julie Porksen when news came through of the disturbance – we had organised the meeting because of the concerns of officers about staff reductions and changes in security procedures at the prison, highlighted in recent incidents.
“As well as putting questions to the company I will be raising with the prisons minister whether the contract conditions are being strictly observed.
“This prison has had a good safety and security record, but I have already questioned whether it can be maintained with the staff reductions which the company is carrying out.”
Mrs Porksen, who is seeking to replace Sir Alan at the 2015 election, added: “Many prison officers have raised their concerns with me, and I am working with Sir Alan to make sure that these concerns are raised at the highest level. Prison officers are doing an extremely important job in difficult circumstances.”
Northumberland County Councillor Scott Dickinson said: “Back in October I raised concerns about the level of staff being reduced and the impact that would have on the staff remaining at the prison in terms of their safety. I think it has been an incident waiting to happen.” In the House of Commons earlier this month, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery claimed 180 staff at the prison have been made redundant in the four months since Sodexo took over on December 1, nearly a third of the workforce.
He asked justice minister Chris Graying whether he was “confident that HMP Northumberland is a safe place for prisoners and staff?”
Mr Lavery posted about the disturbance on Twitter on Saturday morning, saying: “Hate to say I told you so!!... #prisonprivstisationchaos.”
A North East representative of probation service union Napo said it was “no coincidence that this reduction in staffing numbers has impacted upon prisoners.” A spokeswoman for Sodexo said: “We have no concerns about the staff levels.”
She added: “We can confirm there was a disturbance at HMP Northumberland. It was confined to part of one wing of the prison and has been resolved. We will carry out an investigation into this incident.”
Responding to Mr Lavery’s question in the Commons, Mr Graying said: “We are having to take difficult decisions about staffing levels across the prison estate.
“I am confident that every one of our prisons is a safe place to detain prisoners.”
HMP Northumberland was formed by the merger of Castington and Acklington jails in 2011, but the prison building was built 40 years ago.