An investigation by an undercover reporter working as a prison officer has exposed conditions in a private jail where inmates have easy access to drugs and mobile phones and subject overstretched staff to intimidation if they are too diligent in their work.
The investigation into Rye Hill prison, Warwickshire, has unearthed a catalogue of failings at the jail which has already been strongly criticised over the murder of one inmate and the "avoidable" suicides of vulnerable inmates.
During the five-month investigation by Guardian Films and BBC's Panorama, the reporter, a former soldier, worked as a custody officer on some of the most volatile wings in the prison run by Global Solutions Ltd (GSL). He was asked by inmates to bring drugs into the category B high-security prison and assured that his "fee" of £1,500 would be paid into his bank account via Western Union, a practice an inmate claimed had been used before.
Last night, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the investigation called into question the role of private prisons at a time when half of the new 8,000 prison places promised by the government are expected to be privately run. "These revelations are guaranteed to fuel concern about the long-term effect of privatising our prisons, at a time when the government is keen to push greater private sector participation in the probation service as well."
In one clip from the film, to be shown tonight, a young female custody officer is threatened with violence by an inmate. The woman, who had angered prisoners because of her thorough approach to her work, is advised to "back off" by a senior colleague.
Another prisoner told the programme that staff considered too strict were attacked by prisoners, who were paid with drugs by fellow inmates to assault them. Newly-qualified staff, operating alone or in pairs are depicted trying to control upwards of 70 prisoners on a wing while they are unlocked and on free association.
After being given an outline of the film and shown some undercover footage, John Bates, director of corporate communications for GSL, said 47 mobile phones had been recovered inside the jail already this year "which would tend to suggest that there is a very prevalent problem."
He said the prison was "progressing well" and called staff training extremely thorough. But Mr Bates said it was "completely unacceptable" that prisoners were attempting to "groom" officers to bring in drugs. Of the undercover reporter, he said: "He failed his colleagues and he put himself at risk." He added: "I don't think that you quite understand how difficult and complex running a prison is."
Despite two damning reports on Rye Hill by the chief inspector of prisons, GSL are the main providers of private prison places in England and Wales and considered likely to win the government contract to provide a further 4,000 places.
Conditions in the jail were highlighted last month at Northampton crown court when the prison was criticised after the collapse of a manslaughter trial over the death in 2005 of Michael Bailey, a prisoner on suicide watch. Four officers were cleared in connection with the death and the judge described it as an "avoidable tragedy".
Fewer than three weeks after Michael Bailey died, another inmate, Wayne Reid, was stabbed to death in his cell - two inmates have been convicted of his murder.
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