Drunken cell parties, fights, stabbings, prison guards with faulty equipment out of their depth.
Welcome to HMP Five Wells in Northamptonshire, where staff Sky News has spoken to claim all these events have taken place, and one guard told us assaults on staff are “a daily event”.
Three prison guards have blown the whistle on life inside the state-of-the-art super-prison run by security firm G4S. They say they are short-staffed, there are too many inexperienced staff, they are under-equipped and there is a culture that is allowing prisoners to run riot.
“We’re lacking equipment,” said the first officer we met secretly in a car park near to the jail. “We’re lucky if we get a radio to go on to the landings. And we’ve got a very limited amount of bodycams that work. It’s like a lucky dip raffle.”
The man we will call Harry, to protect his identity, said that inmates can tell when the bodycam isn’t functioning. He said life inside the prison is a dangerous mix of inexperienced staff and prisoners who are more aggressive than you might expect in a Category C jail.
“The prisoners run the prison,” he said, adding: “If things don’t change someone is going to get killed.
“And it will be a prison officer. I love my job, but what’s it going to take? Is it going to take for someone to be killed in that place before someone says, we need to do something about this?”
Harry said he and his colleagues are constantly finding homemade or smuggled weapons in the prison. He said a few weeks prior to our interview, a prison officer was stabbed in the head with a metal spike and on the day of our meeting there had been five assaults against members of staff.
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Another serving officer recounted the stabbing. Sally (not her real name) also decided to blow the whistle, and we met her separately away from the prison.
She said: “My fear is something major is going to happen there. Someone’s going to get stabbed, or somebody is going to get murdered within that prison, be it a staff member or a prisoner.”
She added abuse is common. “We get urine and faeces thrown in our face. We get spat at. We get things thrown at us. An officer got stabbed a few weeks ago. We get punched, kicked, tripped up, hit with pool cues. Something like that happens on a daily basis.”
G4S said no officer has ever been stabbed at the prison and the officer in the incident described only received superficial injuries.
HMP Five Wells is a smart prison – but footage shows prisoners using phones and taking drugs
Dubbed a smart-prison, HMP Five Wells is the government’s solution to the antiquated Victorian prison estate, such as Wandsworth, from where recently an inmate escaped.
It was built between 2019 and 2021 on 36 acres of land near to the town of Wellingborough, at a cost of £253m.
At full capacity it can hold 1,680 prisoners. It has X shape blocks with wider, shorter corridors, which are supposedly easier to control with ultra-secure windows designed to keep out drugs and illegal phones.
But recently prisoners have posted images from their cells onto social media using contraband mobile phones where they seem to be gathered drinking alcohol and smoking drugs. One film seems to show alcohol being distilled.
Another, posted to YouTube, shows a prisoner on the roof, and there’s one of a fight in a cell. But perhaps most illustrative of the problem facing staff is a video on TikTok showing a female prison officer receiving sexual taunts from men who are roaming around the corridor, and she appears to have no backup support.
Sally said understaffing is such a problem that it is common for only one female officer to be alone with 60 men on a landing, when there should be at least two members of staff keeping watch.
Prisoner-led initiatives are allowing drugs into the prison, officers claim
Both officers said a Prisoner Led Initiative (PLI) that gives prisoners bands that allow them privileges to move around the blocks is being offered to way too many inmates and abused by prisoners to shift drugs around the prison estate.
Harry said: “Officers are afraid to challenge them because they will just flash their band and say ‘I can go there. I have access to these areas’.”
Sally said: “The peer led initiative when I first started was good – but now they just give bands to any prisoner, willy-nilly, and you’ve got the ‘bands people’ taking other prisoners from other units out of the blocks to sell stuff in the drugs unit.
“And someone with a band will say: ‘I can take him here. He’s with me.’ So, this is how drugs and contraband are getting passed through (the prison).”
Both Harry and Sally said there are more illegal drugs in the drug rehabilitation area than any other part of the prison, and it’s the band system that is facilitating this free flow.
An Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) report published last month also found “PLI prisoners attending the (drug rehab) unit to support prisoners who were the supply line for drugs”.
The board said in regard to prisoners given these privileges there were “serious concerns by prisoners and staff about the methods of recruitment, selection, management and supervision of certain individuals”.
It added: “The board is concerned about the number and range of illicit items found in the prison. Drugs seem to be available on most houseblocks.”
‘Staff turnover is absolutely ludicrous’
The whistleblowers say another problem is the high number of new, young recruits into the prison service often fresh out of college. The IMB report again backs this up. It found the number of inexperienced staff in HMP Five Wells was “a major concern”, and even some of the prisoners had complained about it.
The board’s chair, David Culwick, said: “Difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff has hindered the development of Five Wells.”
The report said: “A high proportion of operational staff have less than one year’s service and staff shortages mean they have little support.”
Harry said out of 17 people he trained with, only two remain. “Staff turnover is absolutely ludicrous. There’s a lot of members of staff that have absolutely no prison experience. They lack confidence. So, for the prisoners they have free reign.”
The whistleblowers believe it is often corrupt members of staff bringing in the drugs.
A third officer we spoke to, who we will call Jane, left her job at the prison because she didn’t feel safe.
She said staff are not searched nearly enough. “I would say everyday (a search) should be imperative. Sometimes you go weeks, three weeks, four weeks. But that was just mainly in the mornings, the night times you would never, never get searched.”
The IMB report also supports this. It stated: “Most searches are between 6am and 8am (when staff arrive) but do not appear to take place at other times of the day.”
Jane blames poor management of the prison. “It was blatantly obvious that the senior management just didn’t care at all about the welfare of the staff. Number one, your biggest asset is your staff.”
There are ‘corrupt staff’ within in the service
All three whistleblowers agreed there are corrupt staff within the service. Both Harry and Sally said they haven’t been searched for about six weeks.
Sally believes some officers have been encouraged to apply for their jobs by prisoners because, on top of their salary, they can earn good money bringing contraband items into the jail. She said: “I do believe some staff have been placed in there by prisoners because it’s easy to get a job in there.”
Last week the Prison Officers Association warned that organised crime groups were sending associates to train as prison officers for the “sole purpose” of smuggling drugs and phones into the jail.
G4S said staff are subject to government vetting checks prior to beginning their work with prisoners. And Five Wells has a counter-corruption strategy.
The three officers’ main concern is the safety of them and their colleagues. Harry said at the end of each day he is relieved that he has “managed to get out without injury”.
Sally said she is afraid for her life because each day “you don’t know what’s going to go in your back”.
For all the state-of-the-art security at HMP Five Wells the people charged with running it don’t feel safe.
G4S told Sky News that staff have adequate bodycams, radios and alarm buttons that can be pressed for assistance.
It said in September an officer received a single minor superficial injury to his temple and two to his back, but the officer was not stabbed.
A spokesperson added: “The safety of staff and prisoners is our number one priority, and we do not tolerate violence.
“Managers take swift and robust action when serious incidents do happen. Such incidents are then referred to the police to support further prosecution.
“We have sufficient levels of staffing to run a stable, consistent and safe regime. We continue to drive recruitment to increase our staffing numbers which will enable us to broaden our current prison regime.
“The majority of our employees have more than 12 months’ prison experience and we have a large group of officers on secondment from other G4S prisons, providing additional support and experience. We are further increasing the number of First Line Managers to provide additional guidance and to mentor newly recruited staff.
“HMP Five Wells staff are proud of the good work that has been carried out since opening to support and develop employees and to help prisoners turn their lives around. We know there is more to be done and continue to take steps to improve the regime every day.
“Our dedicated officers work tirelessly to detect, intercept and confiscate contraband through a range of measures including the use of patrol and drug detection dogs, joint operations with Northamptonshire Police and HMPPS counter-corruption colleagues.
“We understand that working in a prison is a very rewarding vocation but can also be challenging and we are committed to supporting and caring for our staff.”
The Ministry of Justice chose not to comment.