HMP Northumberland – positive aspects including work but many have poorer daily regime than in similar prisons

Read the report: HMP Northumberland

HMP Northumberland, a large men’s training prison holding over 1,300 prisoners, was found by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) to have responded promptly to the early COVID-19 threat and to have “an air of positivity” in some areas.

The prison had “a strong emphasis on constructive employment” and inspectors found that about 30% of prisoners had jobs in the prison at the time of the scrutiny visit in September 2020. Some key workshops had continued to operate throughout the COVID-19 period, with the number increasing recently.

However, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Most prisoners had only one hour a day out of their cell, in addition to collecting meals. This gave more limited time than at most similar prisons for basic activities, such as showering, exercising and using the electronic kiosks to make requests. Those on the induction units often had only 30 minutes rather than an hour a day out of their cell.”

There had been a stream of communications throughout the COVID-19 period and good signage on precautions against the spread of infection. However, social distancing was largely confined to organised settings such as queues. Inspectors saw little of it when staff or prisoners were grouped together.

Inspectors were disappointed to find that a few prisoners who showed symptoms were locked in their cells for 24 hours a day for up to eight days, without access to a shower or the open air, until a test result became available. In a house block with several prisoners with mobility difficulties, the showers were not accessible; inspectors met one prisoner who had not been able to shower since March, as a previous arrangement to shower in a neighbouring house block was not possible during this period.

Violence and self-harm had reduced during the COVID-19 period, although self-harm had been rising in the last two months. Prisoners generally spoke positively of staff attitudes and behaviour. For many prisoners, though, the short periods of unlock prevented much meaningful interaction. Inspectors were concerned that a system of locking individuals in their cells for the whole day, in effect as a form of punishment, had grown without proper authorisation or oversight. The “inappropriate behaviour” which might attract such unofficial punishment included taking too long in the shower.

More than 60% of prisoners said they had a mental health problem and the prison’s mental health team had continued a high level of service. Northumberland’s learning and skills function had been “unusually active” from the beginning of the restricted regime, providing individualised learning materials for those already enrolled in education. Education staff were now back in the establishment and enriching the offer further.

Social visits had restarted promptly in July after the national go-ahead had been given, and the arrangements were satisfactory, but the take-up low. There were some weaknesses in public protection processes; most seriously, the commencement of telephone and mail monitoring for those presenting specific risks was often delayed by days or even weeks.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“There was an air of positivity and confidence across many aspects of the prison’s life and its management; many departments had risen to the challenges of the pandemic situation well. However, in some specific areas of work, management grip was lacking; and while the regime had in many respects moved forward, the prison still needed to seek out and pursue further opportunities to provide as full a regime as possible within the current restraints.”


Notes to editors

1. Read the report: HMP Northumberland. This report was published on 16 October 2020.

2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.

3. Read about the development of scrutiny visits (SVs) in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. These are short inspections which, while not as exhaustive as our full inspections, are more in-depth than the short scrutiny visits used in the early months of the pandemic. They include the reintroduction of a prisoner survey.

4. HMP Northumberland was formed from the merger of HMP Acklington and HMP/YOI Castington, completed in October 2011. It became part of the private prison sector on 1 December 2013 and is run by Sodexo.

5. This scrutiny visit took place between 8 and 15-16 September 2020.

6. On pages 13-14 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and three examples of notable positive practice identified by inspectors.

7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.