Violence, an escape, officers in the dock and drugs hidden inside Pot Noodles – is this a prison in crisis?
HMP Forest Bank has been at the centre of a spate of nasty incidents over the past 12 months.
And it has more drug and phone seizures than any other prison in the country.
But perhaps most shocking are the cases involving prison officers who themselves have turned to crime – or, as in one case, are facing a serious allegation.
In under a year one officer has been jailed for smuggling in mobile phones and two security guards are facing jail after admitting stealing and selling DVDs and games from the jail.
Violence and drugs, especially Spice, are ‘rife’ and the government has reported more drug seizures at Forest Bank than at any other prison in England and Wales.
One woman even told the M.E.N she was targeted by a prisoner who tried to get her to smuggle items into prison for him after meeting him on the dating website Plenty of Fish.
It’s the latest in a string of incidents which have raised questions over security at the Salford jail.
We’ve also heard from staff, ex-staff, prisoners and relatives of inmates who are worried about what is going on behind the gates of the private jail.
One inmate spent six months in hospital after he was set on fire in his cell.
Meanwhile, an officer was knocked unconscious during a ‘ferocious’ and unprovoked assault by a prisoner as he took him his lunch in his cell.
Salford MP Rebecca Long Bailey has told the Manchester Evening News her office has received complaints about the prison from across the country.
She has described events at the Salford jail – which houses Category B, Category C inmates and young offenders – as an example of how ‘justice on the cheap has failed’.
All of this points to one question. Is this a jail in crisis?
Overworked, underpaid and unsupported
“I’m not paid enough to put up with this abuse” – that was the conclusion of one Forest Bank officer after he was attacked in the jail.
He was knocked unconscious in October last year in a ‘ferocious’ and unprovoked assault by inmate Dorian Griffiths .
Griffiths was last week handed a further six months in custody after admitting actual bodily harm during a hearing at Manchester Magistrates’ Court.
The court heard how the officer had attended a job interview in the days following the attack and had been ‘50/50’ about leaving Forest Bank to take the new role. However the violent attack by Griffiths made up his mind.
“After the assault I was sure I was going to leave the prison service,” he said in a victim impact statement read to the court.
“I’m not paid enough to put up with this abuse.”
Another officer at the jail told us staff are ‘overworked, underpaid and not supported by managers’.
“Terrible pay, terrible sick pay, poor health benefits, and employing young people to work in a prison who have little life experience is all part of the problem,” he said.
“I feel like I was not properly supported, and that prisoners seem to have more privileges than staff. The people at the bottom get constant abuse and there’s a really high turnover of staff.
“Staff are physically assaulted and have even had excrement thrown at them.”
Serving inmates and staff have contacted the M.E.N to complain that officers are overworked and struggle to control inmates. The union Community, which has members at Forest Bank, has called for better pay, training and increased staffing.
We put the officers’ claims to Sodexo who said they are committed to supporting staff. The company has previously insisted that the prison is not understaffed.
Why then, is there such a problem with drugs?
‘Spice in Pot Noodles’
“Spice gets in loads of ways. Planted in tubs of protein powder, which go into the prison gym undetected, is one way. Another is bringing it into the prison in a Pot Noodle. They steam off the lid, take out the contents, refill it with drugs and then glue the lid back on”, a source told us.
We put the allegation to Sodexo, who declined to give a direct answer.
Nonetheless, the figures speak for themselves.
In 2017/18 there were 537 drug seizures at Forest Bank. That’s more than at any other prison in England and Wales.
Psychoactives – formerly legal highs such as Spice and Black Mamba – were the most common find, being confiscated 203 times. Cannabis was discovered by 140 times, cocaine confiscated 16 times and there were four heroin seizures made.
It’s the third year in a row the Salford prison has had the highest number of drugs seizures.
On the one hand, it’s good to know that contraband items are being recovered. But on the other, it raises concerns about the ease with which drugs are getting into the jail, and can be found behind bars.
The effects of Forest Bank’s drug issue have been catastrophic for some.
Jordan Higham, 20, spent weeks in intensive care after taking Spice and collapsing at the jail. He was on remand at the prison at the time.
An image of Jordan battling for his life in hospital was handed out to inmates at Forest Bank in the wake of the incident in a bid to scare them off Spice.
At the time a prison service spokesman spoke of introducing mandatory drug testing, increasing sniffer dogs and cell searches across the whole prison estate and strengthening laws around new psychoactive substances to crackdown on drugs in jails.
Months after Jordan was taken ill, Forest Bank started distributing a harm reduction leaflet amongst residents of the prison, instructing them on the safest way to take drugs, if they ignored advice not to.
Inmates were warned about ‘chopping up’ powders finely before snorting, not sharing needles, only using one drug at a time and details of how to look after fellow prisoners who have overdosed – there was even a diagram of how to put someone in the recovery position.
Prison bosses at the time said staff worked hard to keep drugs out but they have a duty of care to prisoners and, as such, provide advice and support.
In October 2016, an investigation was launched after leaked footage revealed the violence and humiliation sparked by Spice use in Forest Bank – including naked prisoners pretending to be dogs. Prison bosses launched an investigation and said staff work hard to successfully stop illicit items entering the prison.
But it’s not just drugs that are getting into the prison. Phones are getting in as well.
‘I met a serving prisoner on Plenty of Fish’
One woman told the M.E.N she was targeted by a prisoner who tried to get her to smuggle items into prison for him after she met him on the dating site Plenty of Fish.
“By the time I found out he was in prison I was in too deep. He made out I was the best thing that had happened to him”, the woman, who asked not be named said. “Then he started asking me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing. I said no. He said ‘go f*** yourself.”
“Girls need to be careful”, she went on. “When they’re in their cells they’re completely different. The minute you don’t want to do what they want they change.”
Sodexo admit that contraband mobile phones have been found inside Forest Bank and insist they are working to crack down on all contraband.
But even staff have been implicated.
‘I was made to do it’
In July, prison officer Lainie Martin was jailed after hiding contraband mobile phones, SIM cards, charges and tobacco into the waistband of gym pants under her uniform and smuggling them into Forest Bank.
Another 498 mobile phones and 211 SIM cards were seized from inmates in the year 2017/2018 – the highest number of seizures in the country.
In Lainie Martin ’s case, she told a court she was ‘made to do it’. She’s now on the other side of the bars – serving 14 months after pleading guilty to ten charges of conveying prohibited articles into her workplace. And she’s just one of a number of staff who have been investigated by police in recent months.
Two security managers have been convicted of stealing thousands of pounds worth of goods from Forest Bank.
Security analyst Anthony Bradbury and security manager Carl Byron offered to carry out searches in areas of the prison where CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, Xbox and PlayStation games were being stored.
The items were brought into the prison as part of a legitimate prison industries contract for inmates to earn money repackaging the products.
Bradbury, 30, and Byron, 37, both from Salford, used their jobs as a chance to steal. They filled holdall bags with around 100 items at a time before simply walking out of the jail with their haul – a scam which lasted years.
Their accomplice Charlie Corrigan, 25, from Bury, then sold the items online.
Bradbury and Byron – who was part of the prison’s corruption prevention team – have pleaded guilty to theft and converting criminal property.
Corrigan pleaded guilty to converting criminal property. All three are due to be sentenced next month.
Also this year, other officers have been subject to action for separate disciplinary issues.
One officer was accused of having a romance with a sex offender she met on a wing. She was suspended when the prison launched an investigation and a specialist police unit looked into it. She later resigned.
Then at Easter, an officer was suspended after two prisoners overpowered him, stole his keys and escaped from his cell before trying to free a third inmate.
Weeks later, another officer was suspended after an inmate hid in a laundry cupboard. He was gone for hours. But no-one noticed he was missing until he gave himself up.
Sodexo declined to comment further on these cases.
“Why do you put up with all of that when I could put a grand in your pocket for bringing in a little powder?”
So what would possess a prison officer to commit a crime themselves?
Former officer Dave Witham recalls working long hours for low wages. He left the jail in 2003 – but his insights are echoed by a former prisoner, who was released last year.
Dave says inmates tried to bribe him many times, though he never accepted the offers.
“They would find you on a bad day at a time when you were clearly angry, or frustrated, or disappointed in the way you were being treated by your bosses – which was often,” he said.
“They would present themselves as the voice of sympathy and understanding, tell you that you were right to feel the way you did and then ask you something like ‘why do you put up with all of that for what little they pay you when I could put a grand in your pocket just for bringing in a little powder?’
“They essentially try to groom officers whilst simultaneously stoking your discontent for your management and employer. It’s done very casually, and they are clearly fishing for those officers who can be tempted into taking the risk.”
Dave says drugs were smuggled in by relatives, prisoners, and occasionally by officers – scenarios all supported by prosecutions over the years.
“One of my earliest memories was working in visits and observing on camera as a visitor pulled his penis out of his trousers, removed a wrap of drugs from under his foreskin, and palmed it to the inmate who then swallowed it of course with the intention of defecating it out later and consuming it,” he said.
The former officer once discovered a five gallon container of hooch on a wing.
“If you cant find a five gallon container, then how easy is it to find a wrap of drugs?” he says.
“It was an impossible job for them to find even a fraction of the contraband located on any wing.”
Former inmate Cody Lachey says the majority of prison officers are hard-working and honest. But he says young and inexperienced officers can be ‘easy to manipulate’.
“They are putting young men and women on the landings with no life experience. Convicts are very manipulative and it’s a game of cat and mouse,” he says.
“At Forest Bank the freedom is fantastic but staff corruption is also a problem because the staff are more friendly. You can manipulate certain officers. You might bump into them in the supermarket or know them from home. They are locking up former friends.
“To be honest I think a lot of corruption is just to top up wages.”
Cody, who worked as an inmate cleaner before his release in 2017, adds: “I feel sorry for the officers. The wages don’t reflect the dangers they face on a daily basis. They are social workers and mental health workers. They are cutting people down (from hanging attempts), acting as first aiders and fire fighters.
“They do the job to the best of their ability but they have got low morale. The pay doesn’t warrant them going above and beyond.
“Prisons should be places of rehab and reform but they are full of anger, debt, violence, intimidation and despair. People who have never taken drugs go in there and come out addicts.”
‘Beaten into a coma’
“We live in 21st century Britain, this is supposed to be a civilised country”, one parent told us.
Back in April, he was horrified when he received a phone call from the prison chaplain telling him that his son had been attacked at the jail and was in a critical condition.
The 23-year-old, who was on remand for theft, had been hit around the head with a television, suffering a brain injury before being put in an induced coma.
He also suffered two fractured cheekbones, a fractured eye socket, broken ribs, a bleed on the brain, a torn earlobe, and lip and bruising to ‘every inch of his body’.
In a separate incident, in January, shocking footage emerged which showed a prisoner being brutally attacked in his cell.
Both incidents were referred to the police but Sodexo declined to comment further.
The same month a prisoner had to be rushed to hospital after reportedly setting himself on fire at a time when it was claimed prisoners were confined to their cells on ‘lockdown’ because of staff shortages. His current condition is not known but Sodexo say he was no longer in their care shortly after the incident.
People may feel they have limited sympathy for prisoners. But at the very least, prisons have a duty to keep the residents of their jails safe, clean and fed.
Prison is supposed to be a place where inmates are rehabilitated. Being locked up and deprived of your freedom and civil liberties is the punishment.
And not everyone in prison has committed a crime. Some of the inmates at Forest Bank are on remand awaiting trials for crimes they may be acquitted of.
Campaigning charity The Prison Reform Trust say the latest catalogue of incidents is ‘cause for concern’.
Director Peter Dawson said: “These worrying problems at HMP Forest Bank are also seen in many other prisons. That includes both public and private – there’s no neat dividing line.
“The prison’s last inspection in 2016 was unusually positive for an establishment of this type. It would need the detail and rigour of a full inspection to say whether things have changed. But it would come as no surprise if the Chief Inspector decided he should return to Forest Bank sooner rather than later. The evidence accumulated is obviously a cause for concern.”
We also put the latest catalogue of incident to the POA, a union which represents prison officers.
They said they would be calling for a full independent review if Forest Bank was a public prison.
A union spokesman added: “These allegations are shocking and the chief inspector of prisons should look into this considering the recent urgent notification at Birmingham (the privately-run prison which is to be renationalised).
“Prisons across the estate are in a mess due to staff shortages and lack of experience, this seems worse than most on the face of it.
“We would be calling for a full independent review if it was public.”
‘Officers need better pay, less violence and fair training’
Community, the trade union which represents officers at Forest Bank, says staff at both private and public prisons often feel disenfranchised.
Justice sector organiser Tiffany Gillies says: “Officers may feel disenfranchised about lack of training, lack of wages, lack of support. These issues are significant and we must continue to challenge companies and the government to ensure better conditions are all in place.”
Community has launched its Safer Justice Sector campaign calling for a reduction of violence against staff, better pay and recognition, fair training and career development and a minimum standards in contracts.
Tiffany says chronic underfunding and a lack of proper training are the most pertinent issues in prisons today.
“The Prison Minister has announced the investment of £10m for prison safety and security – but that’s only for public prisons.
“We don’t want the government to allocate contracts to whoever can run jails for the cheapest. We need the correct level of resources to run all prisons to the same standard.
“Assaults on staff have gone up year on year. We believe there should be the correct level of training, education and staffing to ensure the risks are minimised.”
A union spokesman added: “Years of cuts and under investment from government have meant that too many prison officers do not feel safe at work. The number of assaults on staff has been steadily rising in recent years, with our members across the UK bearing the brunt of the prison safety crisis.
‘Justice on the cheap has failed and must end’
So, after a year of chaos in which the prison has hit the headlines at least once a month, what is the Ministry of Justice and Sodexo doing to crack down on crime, improve conditions for staff and ensure the best possible environment for rehabilitation?
Although HMP Forest Bank is run by a private firm, all inmates are prisoners of the state.
So the M.E.N put all these matters to the MoJ.
But they declined to comment and directed us to Sodexo, who said: “Prisons are a challenging environment to manage with violence, drugs and mobile phones constant issues common across the whole estate.
“We are committed to supporting our staff in the excellent job they do both of stopping illicit items getting into the prison and working with prisoners to address their behaviours to break the cycle of reoffending.
“Where an individual falls short of the standards expected of them, there are robust and fair procedures in place to deal with this.”
Salford MP Rebecca Long-Bailey has called for the government to take action to resolve the ‘chaos’ in the prison system.
She said: “It is extremely shocking to hear of the many issues at Forest Bank prison, some of which have been raised to me directly by relatives of inmates worried about their safety. These concerns have been ongoing for well over 12 months, and show no sign of improvement.
“Private prisons are in a dire state of affairs, and the ongoing issues at Forest Bank are clear evidence of that. The drug epidemic, and widespread violence between prisoners, and prisoners and staff cannot continue.
“The strain on staff across the prison service is immense, and understaffing and overworking can have a damaging effect on both staff and prisoners. The protection of prison staff must be a priority to ensure safety and security.
“Forest Bank must urgently address the concerns that have been raised, and the Secretary of State for Justice must act immediately to resolve the chaos in our prison system. Labour have already announced that it would bring prison maintenance contracts in-house, and that under a Labour government there would be no private prisons.
“The attempt to deliver justice on the cheap has failed and must end, and the deprivation of liberty from human beings should no longer be seen as a profiteering exercise.”
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