A business expert has called for a major review of outsourcing after privately run HMP Oakwood was hit by major disorder this week.
The 1,600-cell prison near Wolverhampton was hit by nine hours of ‘rioting’ on Sunday with ministers and company G4S accused of covering up the extent of the problems.
The category C institution, which is the biggest prison in the country, was also the scene of a number of rooftop protests last year and was slammed by inspectors during a surprise visit.
The lack of information on the true scale of this week’s trouble has led critics to claim the privately run prison has serious underlying problems.
G4S said about 15 to 20 prisoners threatened officers and caused damage to cells and prison property. But other reports suggested that up to 50 prisoners were involved. No prison staff were injured, although one prisoner has been treated for minor injuries.
A G4S spokesman said: “The incident was brought under control without injury to any prison officers, although one prisoner has been treated for minor injuries.”
In the wake of the incident David Bailey, Professor of industrial strategy at Aston University and a Birmingham Post columnist said there needed to be a review of outsourced public contracts. He said: “A cross-government review of major out-sourcing contracts was recently completed in the wake of the ‘tagging’ fiasco involving inappropriate claims by, and payments to, G4S and Serco on the Ministry of Justice tagging contracts.
“It found significant weaknesses in client and contract management across government.
“What’s more, the National Audit Office recently highlighted a crisis of public confidence in public service outsourcing.
“There needs to be a significant shift in policy, starting with a comprehensive review of outsourcing.
“That should look at questions such as whether outsourcing really does offer genuine value for money, how to hold suppliers to account, and how the public can be involved in taking the decision as to whether the state should provide a service directly or should contract out.”
Sadiq Khan MP, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “More and more information is coming to light that suggests the Ministry of Justice and G4S are trying to cover up the true scale of the disturbances in the Justice Secretary’s flagship Oakwood.
“The Government needs to come clean and admit what really happened, and acknowledge that there are some very serious underlying problems at Oakwood. The prison is not punishing and reforming offenders anywhere near as well as it should, and the taxpayer deserves better.
“This isn’t an isolated incident. Since opening, the prison has been plagued by rooftop protests, disturbances and a damning Chief Inspector’s Report that revealed inmates found it easier to get drugs than soap. Yet instead of getting a grip, Chris Grayling praises Oakwood as his model for the rest of the prisons system.”
In a joint statement, the MoJ and G4S said the incident denied reports that prison staff had been taken hostage in the latest trouble, labelling such claims as “completely untrue”.
“The safety of our personnel and those prisoners in our care is our top priority, and we are grateful to our colleagues who were able to help us bring the incident to a close safely, and effectively,” the joint statement said. “Established incident procedures were followed correctly and worked as they were meant to.
“As an investigation has now commenced into the reasons for this disruption, as well as a criminal investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
The prison opened in April 2012 as a training prison next to the existing HMP Featherstone and HMP Brinsford.
In a report published in October, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) reported inexperienced staff and high levels of violence and self-harm at the jail – dubbed “Jokewood” by prisoners. Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick warned there were “real risks if matters were allowed to drift” at the prison.
But Jerry Petherick, managing director of G4S’s custodial and detention services, said staff were doing a “superb job”.
He said: “I accept it’s a new prison and, in common with other new prisons, be they public or private, there is a period where staff mature and get experience.”