In the healthcare centre of Frankland high-security prison, Ian Huntley was working as a cleaner when he was attacked by a particularly determined assailant. Knowing the only way to associate with Huntley was to get on to the same wing as him, the man, who was also classified as a vulnerable prisoner, had persuaded staff he was suicidal and had to be kept in the Suicide Crisis Suite.
Once there, he launched his attack with a shiv, a popular and gruesome prison weapon made by melting the handle of a toothbrush and attaching a razor blade. The slashing left Huntley, one of the country's most reviled prisoners for the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in a shower blood, fighting for his life.
But the Huntley assault was not a one-off. Just seven days earlier, another brutal attack erupted in Frankland. Craig Wylde, a prison officer, was jumped on by Kevan Thakrar, a convicted murderer who used a broken bottle to stab Mr Wylde in the arm. Two officers who came to Mr Wylde's aid were also stabbed. And in the past month alone, four other prison officers in the segregation unit have been assaulted by prisoners.
So what is going on at HMP Frankland? Speak to the Prison Officers' Association (POA) and they will tell you that what is happening is indicative of what happening in the prison estate overall. They point to statistics which appear to show that assaults in prisons (on prisoners and prison officers) have increased by more than 30 per cent to nearly 15,000 a year since 2002, and the prison population has increased just 15 per cent to 84,000.
The perceived danger has prompted the union to request that its members are issued with stab-proof vests, while renewing their attacks on "prison management" whose apparent pandering to prisoners, they say, is making prisons more dangerous.
Colin Moses, the chairman of the POA, said: "From the very top, there is a move to placate prisoners and that move is disempowering prison officers. Prisons have been liberalised and so has the prison regime and that has resulted in prisoners thinking they can do what they want and it is shown in what we say is an increase in assaults in prisons. What is happening at Frank- land is endemic of the problems in prisons across Britain."
But those who run the service totally reject this. Phil Wheatley, the director general of the National Offenders Management Service (Noms), which oversees the running of all 140 prisons in England and Wales, says the three recent cases at Franklin are all different.
The attack on Huntley was committed by a prisoner with a name to make, a rare but not unknown problem in prison. Thakrar's motivation for his attack on a prison officer was his desire to be sent to the prison's segregation unit, where one of his relatives had been placed.
And the assaults on staff in the segregation unit were committed by prisoners trying to engineer a move out of Frankland, which is in the extreme north-east of England, to a prison more geographically accessible to visits from friends and relatives. Mr Wheatley points to figures which show that serious assaults on prison officers have increased by just three, from 173 in 2003-04 to just 179 in 2009-10, despite the prison population increasing by about 15 per cent in the same period.
But, despite government figures which show that attacks per 1,000 prisoners increased from 156 to 191 between 2002 and 2008 – something he accounts to better reporting systems – Mr Wheatley denies prisons are more dangerous places.
He said: "Prisons will have events, and if I said that I could guarantee that a particular prison would not have assaults or serious incidents you should accuse me of being a fool. But to suggest prisons are more dangerous is just not the case. If you look at riots, which is usually a good indicator of prisons being out of control, we have had four in the past 10 years, compared to 13 in the 10 years before that.
"We have had not had a Category A escape since 1995, but in the 15 years before that we had 27. Prisons generally are more controlled, more secure and more safe. The events of the past week in Frankland are rare, but occasionally they do come together in clumps."
One of the issues brought into focus by Huntley's slashing is the ease with which prisoners can convert everyday items into potentially lethal weapons. So why do they have access to such items? The POA says prisoners being given their own razors is a relatively new practice (before that, prisoners had to collect and return a razor every morning).
But Mr Wheatley says the old system was flawed and prisoners were punished for losing razors or, in many cases, had them stolen. He added: "If we want prisoners who have teeth in their heads and who do not have to have long beards, then I need to run a regime where prisoners can get access to toothbrushes and razors. Of course we try to minimise the accessibility prisoners have to potential weapons. We have very little glass in prison, but some foodstuffs come only in glass. Some prisoners have televisions in their cells and televisions have glass plates. And if we want prisoners to cook their own food, some utensils are made of Pyrex."
As for stab vests for staff, Mr Wheatley says: "Given the relatively small number of assaults with stabbing instruments in prison and the sheer discomfort of wearing a stab vest, I do not think issuing stab vests would be a proportionate response, even in the Franklands of this world."
The argument between unions and management is not unusual, but how does it affect the prisoners. Murderer Charles Hanson has been in and out of prison since 1962. He was released last year after serving 14 years for stabbing his wife to death.
"In my experience, prison is a more dangerous place nowadays," he said. "I think it is partly due to the fact that prison officers are after an easy life. In the old days, they got involved in everything, but now they just want an easy life and they turn a blind eye, some prisoners take advantage of that.
"But I also think that now we live in a much more dangerous society. I do not remember, when I started offending, seeing the level of violence we now have in society. The violent measures some people will go to to achieve some objective is quite frightening."
Dispersal prisons: Where the most dangerous offenders are held
*HMP Frankland, in Co Durham, is one of the UK's five dispersal prisons, created following a prison-safety reform report by Lord Mountbatten.
Undertaken after a series of high-profile prison escapes – most notably that of George Blake, a spy who fled Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 – the report suggested that the best way of keeping the most serious offenders under control was to designate a series of prisons which Category A prisoners could be "dispersed" to.
The original dispersal prison was Albany, and the others included Whitemoor, in Cambridgeshire, Long Lartin, in Worcestershire, Full Sutton, in York, and Wakefield in Yorkshire.
The idea behind the dispersal prisons was that the country's most serious offenders would be in small number of jails, but not all housed together. It would also allow offenders to be moved at short notice to another dispersal prison equipped to deal with serious and dangerous criminals.
Frankland holds 750 prisoners, and previous inmates include Charles Bronson and Harold Shipman. Entry requirements mean that all inmates must be serving a sentence of four years or more.
Because of the fact that serious offenders are only held in dispersal prisons, every infamous murderer, rapist or paedophile currently in custody in England and Wales will be held in one of these five prisons. HMP Albany, the prison which first became a dispersal facility shortly after its opening in 1967, is no longer one. It now hold category B and C prisoners.Reuse content