Britain’s biggest privately-run jail downplayed a ‘full scale riot’ which saw inmates take over an entire wing and booby-trap the doorways, a prison officer has claimed – causing one commentator to say that if true G4S should lose all their prison contracts.
Prisoners were in a nine-hour stand-off with guards earlier this month at the £150 million HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton, run by G4S and nicknamed ‘Jokewood’ for its alleged lax security.
Speaking to the BBC, the specially-trained officer said he was part of a ‘tornado team’ drafted in to tackle the prisoners.
The anonymous man told Hannah Barnes of The Report, to be aired tonight on BBC Radio 4: ‘Our briefing was that the prisoners were armed and dangerous and that it was a very large number of prisoners and they had completely taken over an entire wing of the prison.
‘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 debris and iron bars had been thrown to the floor in Cedar Wing and tripwires had been strung up at neck, chest and leg height.
He added: ‘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 has firmly denied the allegations.
Another officer, who also remained anonymous, told the BBC staffing at the prison was so low it put suicidal inmates at risk – and sometimes suicide watch records were falsified due to a lack of time.
G4S told the BBC any allegation of falsified records would be fully investigated.
One of Britain’s largest with 1,600 inmates, Oakwood Prison was described as a model for future prisons by the government yet has been beset by controversy.
In October inspectors gave it the lowest possible rating – quoting one prisoner who said drugs were easier to get hold of than basics like soap.
Staff were passive and ‘compliant almost to the point of complicity’, they said, and they found hard core pornography on cell walls despite the jail holding some 300 sex offenders.
Responding to the prison officer’s claims, a G4S spokesman told the BBC the incident was still under investigation but it was a case of ‘concerted indiscipline’ confined to one wing, and the jail is improving.
‘The incident was brought under control just after 2am without injury to any prison officers, although one prisoner has been treated for minor injuries.
‘Reports of prison staff being taken hostage are 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.
‘Established incident procedures were followed correctly and worked as they were meant to.
‘An investigation has now commenced into the reasons for this disruption, as well as a criminal investigation.’
Speaking to the Today programme, Jerry Petherick, managing director for custodial and detention services at G4S, said it was more difficult because Oakwood was being treated as a test case by politicians and the public.
He said: ‘I think it would be useful for people to acknowledge the very good work my staff are doing at Oakwood.
‘There was an instance of concerted indiscipline that was dealt with. For a period of time that wing was occupied by prisoners. It was a number of hours as we accumulated the necessary resources to contain the incident.
‘I would like to see Oakwood come out of the media spotlight to give people the opportunity to develop the work. If you’re operating in the media spotlight everything becomes magnified.’
Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said if the cover up claims proved to be true it was time for G4S to lose its prison contracts.
Mr Leech said: “I absolutely get why Jerry Petherick wants to see Oakwood come out of the spotlight, G4S has shareholders for whom this constant criticism must be deeply concerning coming as it does on top of the tagging fraud scandal, devastating criticism of Oakwood from the Chief Inspector of prisons, not to mention the Olympics debacle – the solution however is not to blame the media, but for G4S to get a grip on the prison’s management.
“Tornado teams sent to Oakwood to qwell the riot would have been fully briefed on what was known based on what incident commanders on the ground were reporting – that briefing now needs to be published.
“If the cover-up claims prove to be true G4S should lose its prisons contracts – it would be a dishonesty that simply could not be overolooked nor tolerated.”
Reports at the time claimed up to 40 inmates had taken two guards hostage during the riot – before demanding McDonald’s meals were brought to their cells.
Yet G4S and the Ministry of Justice dismissed these claims as ‘completely untrue’.
A joint statement read: ‘The disruption, which was confined to one wing of the Category C prison for male prisoners, began just after 5pm on [January 5] as prisoners were out of their cells on association, and involved around 15-20 prisoners, who threatened officers and caused damage to cells and prison property.
‘A number of prisoners returned to their cells voluntarily. The Ministry of Justice was informed immediately, and standard procedures were initiated to deal with the incident, with rapid response teams deployed. Staffordshire Police were also informed.
‘Owing to damage caused to cells, a number of prisoners were moved to other wings and to other prisons in the area.