Prisoners were locked in their cells for almost a whole day after a vital set of keys fitting every cell door went missing at Birmingham’s newly-privatised jail.
The keys – set number 505 – disappeared on Tuesday at the city’s Winson Green jail, which was taken over by private security firm G4S on October 1.
They include sets of Class One and Two keys, which are used for most of the jail’s general locks, a key that fits every cell door in the jail and another key to fit the Victorian prison’s wooden doors.
A Birmingham Prison officer, who would not be named, said: “The whole place is on lockdown. There was a key check on Tuesday night and one set was identified as having gone missing.
“Everyone is searching for them. A total of 1,200 sets of keys are issued to staff. The prison has been on lockdown since early yesterday and prisoners confined to their cells until the keys found,” said the vastly-experienced officer.
He claimed prisoners were kept in the dark about the emergency in case it led to an outbreak of disorder in the cells.
“The cons would be very angry if they knew what had happened and it led to them being locked up for so long. It is embarrassing to say the least,” he added.
The man, who had 12 years experience with the prison service before being transferred to G4S following the takeover, said it was suspected that a rogue officer with a grudge against the company had hidden the keys to cause maximum disruption.
“If the keys got into the wrong hands, anyone could just walk in and out of the jail – it’s that serious,” he said.
He denied that the keys could have been taken by a prisoner.
“They are alarmed so if they had been taken without authorisation everyone would know,” added the officer.
“It’s only 19 days since the prison has gone private. There are staff shortages, we cannot get leave and officers don’t feel secure.
“I’m a big bloke and I don’t feel safe any more,” he said.
“Prisoners are pushing the boundaries. On average there are now about four officers on a wing when there used to be 12 a day. It is a time bomb waiting to go off.”
He also claimed prisoners were flouting jail regulations and drug-taking was rife.
“During a recent cell search we found homemade weapons, mobile phones and Subutex heroin substitute tablets,” he said.
The pills – known as ‘subbies’ – are popular in jails because they are small and easier to conceal than heroin or crack. The drug, the brand name for the opioid buprenorphine, is also harder to detect in tests. They are worth about £40 per tablet to a prisoner.
“There are so many hard drugs in the jail. It’s like a cat and mouse game with people hiding in the bushes and throwing packages over from the former All Saints hospital grounds when they think staff aren’t about,” he added.
The officer also alleged the 1,450 capacity jail was infested with rats, mice and cockroaches.
“It’s filthy and prisoners are being used to clean it up in another cost-cutting measure. The whole place is disgusting. I don’t think G4S realised what they were taking on,” he said.
It was unclear whether the keys have been found.
A spokeswoman for G4S commented: “As a rule we do not comment on security matters. However, all prisons have well-established contingency plans to deal with incidents of this nature.”