Public would be 'horrified' to know what was going on at Norwich Prison
PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 August 2018 | UPDATED: 16:17 12 August 2018
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"If the public knew what was going on behind closed doors, they would be horrified".
That is the view of a Norwich prison officer who has today spoken out about the working conditions at the Knox Road jail.
Assaults are said to be commonplace, with inmates using improvised weapons and boiling water to attack officers.
Staff claimed such incidents were partly behind the high number of officers currently on sick leave or restricted duties.
One officer is said to have been on sick leave for more than 12 months after being stabbed in the neck.
It comes as Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show assaults on staff at HMP Norwich in 2017 were at their highest since 2000.
Eighty-three incidents were recorded last year - about one every four-five days.
A prison service spokesman said the governor and his team were “working hard” to improve safety at the facility, with 60 officers hired.
But those working at the prison claimed staffing issues were still “humongous” with around 40 allegedly on sick leave or restricted duties.
They also claimed officers with less than 12 months’ experience were now training new recruits.
“I would say morale is very low and everyone is at the end of their tether,” one prison officer said.
“We have multiple people who are off sick and a lot of that is mental fatigue and stress.”
The officer claimed assaults against staff were happening on a “weekly basis”.
“Just a couple of days ago we had a member of staff being chased on a landing with an improvised weapon,” he said.
“They [the inmate] had broken off an old paint roller and sharpened the end. I don’t think anyone should go to work and expect to be in fear of their lives.”
The prison officer, who did not want to be named due to the impact it could have on his job, said he had been assaulted multiple times.
In one incident an inmate repeatedly punched him in the face, leaving him with bruising and swelling around his eyes.
He then had to return to work on the same landing and was later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
The officer said some of the issues at the prison were due to a lack of experienced staff.
He said: “Unfortunately the people who have been there for years have seen such a huge change, they have gone ‘you know what, it’s not worth it’.
“They drop a rank [to Operational Support Grade (OSG)] and take a pay cut, but it is far less stressful and it is not a prisoner-facing role.
“You have less and less experience, and a lot of the time the prisoners on the landings will have more knowledge of the system than staff.”
The prison service said staff training was always provided by those who had been “assessed to be suitable” to deliver the training.
A prison service spokesman said: “Norwich is feeling the benefits of 60 additional officers and new body-worn cameras and further work is being done to reduce violence.”
Steve Searby, chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA) at Norwich Prison, said the situation at the facility had improved.
But he said staffing issues were still a problem.
“When I joined in the mid-90s, a lot of people came from military backgrounds,” Mr Searby said.
“But now they will take anyone, and as I have said lots of times before, it’s a job that you don’t know if you can do until you actually do it.
“We have people here who are 18 or 19 [years’ old], but you need life experience in this job.”
Speaking about staffing issues at HMP Norwich, a source within the prison said: “If you are talking about people off sick and on restricted duties, the figure is closer to 40.
“Around 35 of them are prison officers and if you take that as a percentage, that is about 25pc of front line staff.”
The source, who was not willing to be name, said a lot of staff were also going through counselling.
He claimed of the new 60 officers hired by the prison service, between 15 to 20 had already left.
Another prison officer, who did not wish to be named, said the lack of experience was “dangerous”. “They [new officers] won’t deal with certain offenders because they are too intimidated,” he said.
The officer added he had been assaulted multiple times. He said during once incident an inmate threw boiling water at him.
‘Drugs are a horrendous daily occurrence’
Officers said drugs, including the synthetic cannabis substitute Spice, were regularly found inside the prison.
One member of staff said contraband was sometimes thrown over the walls, or smuggled inside by prisoners on recall.
He said a six-inch flick knife was recently found in a cell. “You might get someone who is doing a short stint on recall [to prison] and they plug themselves full of drugs and phones,” a prison officer said. “I would say you are more likely to get drugs inside than you are outside.
“It is a horrendous daily occurrence.”
MoJ figures show 37 knife and 39 drug seizures were made in 2016 at HMP Norwich.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “The prison has invested in two extra sniffer dog handlers and a scanner to detect drugs that are sent through letters. Regular work with the police also takes place to stop illicit items entering the prison.”
HMP Norwich facts and figures
HMP Norwich is home to a wide variety of prisoners, including violent offenders.
The main site houses category B and C prisoners, while a separate category D open prison is located adjacent to the main facility.
It can house a total of 773 inmates.
MoJ figures show assaults against staff have increased by 167pc in the past five years at Norwich Prison.
In 2012, there were 31 assaults at the facility, compared to 83 last year.
The number of “serious assaults” at HMP Norwich increased from five in 2016 to 12 last year.
Elsewhere in the county, HMP Wayland, located at Griston, Thetford, saw assaults on staff fall from 81 in 2016 to 74 last year.
In 2012, the figure stood at 24.
Wayland prison is a category C facility.
Meanwhile, at HMP Bure, in Badersfield, which is also a category C prison, assaults increased from six in 2016 to 18 last year.
‘Prisoners have no fear or respect anymore’
A change in prisoner attitudes has also been blamed for the increase in assaults against staff.
One officer at HMP Norwich said there used to be much more discipline in the system, adding that “prisoners knew where they stood”.
But he claimed prisoners today “don’t care”.
His views were echoed by Norwich Prison’s POA chair Steve Searby who said new inmates have “no fear or respect” anymore.
He said: “We all wear body worn cameras and everywhere has CCTV, and the prisoners know that, but that doesn’t bother them.”
Mr Searby claimed punishments handed out by the courts for those who attack officers were also inadequate.
Meanwhile, justice secretary David Gauke said: “I have been clear that assaults on our hardworking staff will never be tolerated. We will always push for the strongest punishment and are changing the law so that offenders who attack prison officers face even longer behind bars.
What the politicians have to say
Conservative Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said she had recently spent time with the officers to listen to their concerns.
She said “made sure” to raise the issues with the prisons minister.
“Prison officers do an incredibly tough job and deserve all support,” she said. “However, it’s worth noting that there has been successful recruitment to the profession recently so we should be positive about HMP Norwich as a good place to work in the public service.”
A report from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of HMP Norwich, published in June this year, stated despite a major recruitment programme, staff shortages and lack of experience continue to detrimentally affect the lives of prisoners and staff.
The MoJ was asked about how many staff were off sick or on restricted duties.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “From my discussions there are people off sick as there would be in any working environment.”