Undercover Panorama report reveals prison chaos

Media captionUndercover footage showed prisoners incapacitated by drugs

Chaos in one of the biggest prisons in the country has been revealed in secret filming for the BBC.

An undercover reporter spent two months at HMP Northumberland, which houses up to 1,348 male inmates, for Panorama.

He discovered widespread drug use, a lack of control, door alarms that did not go off in one block and a hole in an internal security fence.

The Ministry of Justice said it would investigate the “extremely serious allegations” at the Acklington jail.


Prison officers also found balaclavas, blackout clothing and wire-cutting tools at the category C jail.

It is believed inmates had been sneaking out to collect drugs or other contraband thrown over the perimeter fence.

These discoveries were made in a block where inmates preparing to transfer to open prisons were not locked in their cells at night.

In one of the most disturbing episodes of the undercover investigation, footage shows a prison officer having convulsions on the floor after accidentally inhaling spice, a cheap and stronger synthetic alternative to cannabis, which is rife in the jail.

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Media captionBBC Panorama spent two months inside one of the country’s biggest prisons

The undercover reporter, who was working as a custody officer, was told by some staff they did not feel able to confront prisoners because they were worried back-up support would take too long to arrive.

During the secret filming, the reporter also recorded scenes including:

  • Prisoners incapacitated by drugs
  • Officers sometimes left on their own to manage large groups of inmates
  • Inmates threatening staff

Image caption

A prison officer collapsed after accidentally inhaling spice smoke

The Panorama investigation comes days after the Ministry of Justice announced the replacement of the National Offender Management Service with a new prison and probation service aimed at cutting crime and reforming offenders.

200 jobs cut

HMP Northumberland is run by Sodexo Justice Services.

It was privatised in 2014, when the government was aiming to cut £500m from the prisons budget.

To win the contract, Sodexo pledged to save the taxpayer £130m over 15 years. Two hundred jobs, including 96 prison officer posts, were cut.

At the time of the deal, the Prison Officers Association warned it could result in “escapes and riots”.

Find out more

Read Prison Undercover: Reporter Joe Fenton’s story:

It didn’t take too long to realise the inmates were, in effect, running this prison

HMP Northumberland is a training prison that is meant to offer a range of education and training programmes to prepare inmates for release.

The Panorama reporter witnessed some inmates colouring in pictures of the children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig in an “employability skills” class provided by an outside contractor, Novus.

It told Panorama it had investigated these concerns and sent a report to the government.


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