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Panorama: Bribery & Drugs Exposed At Private Prison

16th April 2007 Print
A prison officer in fear for her life, prisoners with mobile phones, officers on the take - an undercover prison officer blows the whistle on a privately run jail. In a Guardian Films co-production with BBC One's Panorama, a reporter spent five months undercover at HMP Rye Hill in Warwickshire – a Category B jail holding 600 inmates.

Rye Hill is run by GSL (formerly Group 4). Not one new prison built in the last ten years is state run and half the 8000 new prison places promised by the Government will be privately run. But can the private sector really do the job?

To find out, an undercover recruit joined Rye Hill as a trainee and after 13 weeks qualified top of his class. Once on the wings, the undercover recruit saw a prison officer he trained with being openly threatened by inmates for enforcing the rules too rigidly. The escalating intimidation – with one warning sent by a prisoner using a senior prison officer as go-between – put the officer in genuine fear for her life.

Officer: "The thing is – I'm feeling very threatened."

Undercover Officer: " It's not very safe though is it?"

Officer: "No that's what I'm saying I'm not feeling safe because of the staff. And I don't know if I can be bothered with it for the money. And, they're going to kill me, I do believe."

This scenario – of inexperienced staff pitted against experienced criminals – is one that Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, recognised in both her reports on Rye Hill over the past two years.

She tells the programme: "We wrote to ministers and I asked that urgent action should be taken and we would not have done that except for the fact that we felt the situation at Rye Hill was extremely volatile and prisoners felt it was volatile – prisoners wanted more control in the prison!"

A former inmate recently phoned the team from his new jail and told them it was a long standing and ongoing problem at Rye Hill. "I've witnessed inmates being paid drugs to go and assault a member of staff just to get that member of staff off the wing cos they didn't like that particular member of staff.

"You know if a member of staff was doing their job properly – inmates didn't like that ... they preferred staff who either turned a blind eye or were too scared to challenge them."

A GSL spokesman had nothing but praise for the newly qualified officer seen being intimidated and worried about being murdered.

John Bates, GSL's Corporate Communications' Director said "She shouldn't be frightened. She's fully supported. It's absolutely first class that she is trying to apply the rules. [But] People shouldn't be surprised by the fact that prisoners in a prison seek to coerce staff into making their lives easier. And we don't hide from that fact and that's why during the training, we return to that theme regularly."

Trainee officers are not allowed a set of keys. At one stage, while still a trainee, the undercover officer found himself with with 80 prisoners out of their cells while he had no keys or radio. The prisoners - who knew the system better than he did – commented on his vulnerability.

Prisoner: "When they gonna give you a key?"

Undercover Officer: "Dunno soon I hope."

Prisoner: "It's mad innit? You can't do nothing if you ain't got no key."

Undercover Officer: "Or radio no. If it kicks off I'm stuffed."

Prisoner: "Yeah yeah."

GSL's John Bates, said: "He shouldn't have been on his own. He was shadowing other members of staff and those other members of staff should have ensured he went with them wherever they went.

The undercover officer also witnessed prisoners running drugs operations from their cells on mobile phones, he himself was "groomed" by inmates wanting drugs and phones smuggled in.

One of those caught on film offered him £1,500 – an amount more than he could earn in a month as a newly qualified officer working for GSL.

Prisoner: "So are you right for it?"

Undercover Officer: "Bit tight at the moment."

Prisoner: "Well when you're ready let me know. And I'll start with a tester first so give you £500 to bring a bar of weed if you just let me know and then once we both know it's right, we'll go to the £1,500 mark."

£1,500 would mean more on offer for a single delivery of cannabis than GSL pays him in a month. The inmate then boasted that he had other officers on his payroll:

"Obviously as you know I'm with someone else, and the man's totally undercover comes you'll know who he is, he comes and sits with me, totally undercover. Ring tonight and we'll have a proper chat..."

And of a second officer, he says: "I'd say she was getting £1,500 off of us."

So how could someone in prison get hold of that kind of money? Why telephone banking of course...

Prisoner: "Western Union, that's easy. I make one phone call and you'll get money today."

Undercover Officer: "Really?"

Prisoner: "Yeah If I phone today and get your bank number and say give him £800, you get it today – that's how easy it is."

All this means any mobile phones successfully smuggled in fetch a premium price.

Prisoner: "A camera phone goes for £500."

Undercover Officer: “£500?”

Prisoner: “Yeah £500, £600, £700. A normal phone like – no camera – goes for £250.”

GSL's John Bates said already this year they've recovered 47 mobiles at the jail: "Which would tend to suggest that this is a very prevalent problem. Despite the fact that we would like to install equipment that jams mobile phones, we're prevented from doing so."

Of the "grooming" he said the prisoners' behaviour was "Completely unacceptable."

He added: "Corruption is not about pay, it's an honesty issue. And if somebody has a conversation like that with a member of staff, the member of staff knows exactly what they should do to deal with that.

"There's a reporting system, the security intelligence reporting system ... And if that officer had done what he was trained to do that matter would have been dealt with."

Panorama: A Life Behind Bars, Monday 16 April, 8.30pm, BBC One.