Probation officers are fearful of paying visits to a North East prison where cutting officers by more than a third has led to a “violent culture”, it has been claimed.
Mike Quinn, vice chairman of the Northumbria branch of NAPO, spoke out about HMP Northumberland after a prison officer was hospitalised by an inmate on August 9.
He described the Category C jail as “like a tinderbox” and claims cash is being exchanged for prisoner assaults.
It has been revealed how staff numbers at HMP Northumberland fell from 441 to 270 from 2010 to 2013 - a drop of 39%.
Mr Quinn said: “We are becoming increasingly alarmed at reports about conditions at HMP Northumberland.
“Members report to me that the atmosphere within the prison is tense and are concerned that if an incident were to take place that there would simply not be the staff to deal with it.”
It comes as Eoin McLennan Murray, president of the Prison Governors Association, revealed Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s austerity drive is making it impossible to run a jail safely. He said this week: “We haven’t been able to recruit the numbers we need.”
Private firm Sodexo took over the running of the jail in December 2013, after HMP Acklington and HMP Castington merged two years before.
Mr Quinn added: “Worryingly, we’ve learnt that money may be changing hands between prisoners in order for assaults to be undertaken between prisoners. This will result in not only danger to prisoners, but also the staff employed at the prison.
“Prisoners are reporting to our members that they’re submitting applications to see healthcare professionals, to access education opportunities or to attend rehabilitative programmes, only to not hear back.”
The union boss accused Chris Grayling of “destroying any hopes of rehabilitation” with cuts.
He said: “Just a fortnight ago we saw a prison officer hospitalised having been attacked by a prisoner. But our concerns extend further than this, if the prison is truly to release people back into the community having learnt something from their time in prison, then Sodexo need to invest the right resources.
“For us, that’s the overriding concern. Businesses taking over organisations such as prisons, and soon the probation service, have a primary aim of making money for their shareholders.”
A Sodexo Justice Services spokesperson said: “Staffing levels for prison visits have remained unchanged since Sodexo took over the contract and the number of prisoners attending daily appointments has improved.
“We monitor incidents in the prison very closely, and there is no evidence of any change in levels of violent behaviour.
“We review staffing levels at all our prisons on a regular basis and will continue to monitor them at HMP Northumberland.”
The spokesman added: “We can confirm an employee at HMP Northumberland was injured during an incident with a prisoner on Saturday August 9.”
Sir Alan Beith, Lib Dem MP for Berwick, said: “I have raised with ministers on several occasions my concerns that the staffing levels at HMP Northumberland may not be adequate to maintain a safe prison and achieve effective resettlement, and I will continue to raise these concerns.”
Labour peer Jeremy Beecham added: “Staffing at the jail was cut by a third.
“Chris Grayling is in denial about the extent of this problem and this is reflected clearly at HMP Northumberland.
“Staffing is becoming a widespread problem. Not only in private prisons, all have taken a big hit and it is all part and parcel of an approach which ignores the reality.
“You can’t cope with the situation without adequate, trained staff.”