A nine-hour disturbance at a private prison run by controversial operator G4S has been described as a “full scale riot”. An unnamed member of the so-called Tornado squads sent in to quell the violence at HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton earlier this month has claimed that inmates set tripwires and threatened officers as they were leaving a wing strewn with debris, including iron bars.
G4S said the incident was "emphatically not a riot". A spokeswoman said: "It was a disturbance involving 20 prisoners out of a prison of 1,600 which was confined to one wing.
Oakwood – which has been dubbed “Jokewood” by critics – is England’s largest prison and has been hailed by the Government as a blueprint for the prison service of the future. At the height of the violence inmates barricaded themselves in and overturned pool tables. It took 10 days to return Cedar wing to full operation.
The officer told BBC Radio 4’s The Report that specially trained teams sent in to quell the trouble were warned that the prisoners were “armed and dangerous”.
“They'd interfered with locks to try and prevent staff getting into the wing and they were destroying everything they could get their hands on. I did hear prisoners shouting threats, saying, 'We're ready for you, come on - we're gonna get you' and words to that effect,” he said.
“Wires had been strung as tripwires at leg level and at chest and neck level as well, to try and prevent us from moving in an orderly fashion down the wing and sort of break us as we went through.
“I would sum it up as a full-scale prison riot and we were very lucky that it only took place on one unit and didn't spread.”
G4S said in a statement that the indiscipline involved 15-20 inmates and that the trouble was rapidly contained. It was initially reported that the disturbance had lasted for five hours although it later emerged that it had taken nearly twice as long to bring the situation back under control with G4S and the Ministry of Justice denying claims that prison officers had been taken hostage.
Jerry Petherick, director of custodial and detention services at G4S was challenged over claims that alcohol caused the violence and that illegal home brewing it was a particular problem at Oakwood. He said illicit drink was a constant feature of all prisons and that staff conducted routine searches, confiscating and destroying alcohol found whilst those caught producing it were punished.
He said of the disturbance: “I've made it clear this was a significant event. And of its type, in the spectrum of such events, it was at the lower end of that spectrum.” An investigation is underway into the cause of the incident.
The £180m jail which is home to 1,600 category C offenders was the scene of rooftop protests last year. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) reported inexperienced staff and high levels of violence and self-harm. Prisoners claimed that it was easier to come by drugs including heroin than it was to get soap. Labour has described the jail as “failing”.
G4S was heavily criticised for its botched handling of its Olympics security contract in 2012 and has been under review by the Government following revelations it overcharged for criminal-tagging contracts.
G4S also denied that drugs were readily available in the jail. The company said it had invested heavily in anti-drug measures since the HMIP report.