Violence, hostage taking and gang attacks rife in private prison, report finds

Inspectors spotted mice, cockroaches, missing window panes and exposed wires at the purpose-built prison

Staff shortages at one of Britain’s most modern jails run by the private-sector Serco has left wardens overwhelmed by high levels of violence, hostage-taking and gang assaults on its wings, an inspection report reveals today.

Conditions at Doncaster prison – one of five run by the company which has a £3.5bn turnover – were so poor that inspectors spotted mice, cockroaches, missing window panes and exposed wires at the purpose-built prison.

Inspectors said that violence was unacceptably high despite prison numbers being cut by 100 to try to deal with the deep-seated problems. Three inmates killed themselves in the past 18 months

The Government has focused on problems within Victorian prisons. But campaigners said that conditions at Doncaster – one of 14 run privately – highlighted the extent of problems at new jails blighted by staff shortages and lack of investment. 

“Today’s report emphasises how misleading it is to blame the prison system’s failings on Victorian jails,” said Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform. “If old buildings were the problem, we would be tearing down Oxbridge. Doncaster is a big, new, private prison, opened in 1994, but it is already infested with vermin. Prisons with too many prisoners and too few staff will fail, no matter how old they are.”

The problems at Doncaster represent a case study of Prime Minister David Cameron’s complaint last month about the shameful level of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm as he announced a shake-up of prisons and the treatment of inmates.

Serco was awarded a new 15-year £250m contract from 2011 to run the prison, which holds more than 1,000 inmates, and said that it would “continue to ensure that it is a safe, secure, decent, efficient and responsible establishment”.

But inspectors highlighted a raft of failures at the prison including attacks by gangs of men, persistent bullying and at least three hostage incidents. Nearly half of inmates thought it was easy to get drugs.

Some prisoners said they were too frightened to leave their cells. Last year a convicted burglar, Keiron Simpson, killed a man with a single punch in an apparently motiveless attack in the prison. “The lack of staff was a critical problem,” the report said. 

Hospital appointments for sick inmates had to be cancelled because of a lack of escort staff to take them there. One prisoner, in a wheelchair, said he had not had a shower for more than two years because the necessary alterations had not been made.

Juliet Lyon, director of the prison Reform Trust, said: “Since its opening, Doncaster has been better known for its institutional meanness and overcrowding than for the efficiency and innovation promised, but not always delivered, by the private sector.”

Serco’s record has been mixed. Inspectors said that one of its institutions for sex offenders was very good, while violence at others was assessed to be too high.

Julia Rogers, of Serco, said: “We are continuing to address the issues raised in this inspection and safety has improved, violence is gradually reducing and the house blocks have been refurbished.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We will be investing £1.3bn to transform the prison estate over the next five years, to better support rehabilitation and tackle bullying, violence and drugs.”