A prison officer at a jail described as “fundamentally unsafe” claims his colleagues stop two suicides every week.
Eight inmates are thought to have killed themselves at HMP Nottingham in the past two years.
Many more inmates attempt suicide, the officer said, but the public does not hear about the lives saved.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said he will look at “the issues faced by the prison” and publish an action plan.
The prison officer contacted the BBC after the chief inspector of prisons issued Mr Gauke with an “urgent notification letter” – sent on 17 January – demanding action within 28 days.
He said news reports of this were a “massive kick in the face” for his colleagues and he wanted to raise awareness of the work they do to prevent the prison from “turning into a massive riot”.
The prison officer said there are two suicide attempts at the prison every week, on average.
“We’ve got a safety tool so we can safely cut the ligature from round people’s necks without causing them any harm,” he said.
“I’ve done one since I’ve been here in Nottingham and it’s my second one I’ve done [in my career], and there’s nothing scarier in the world, because someone has made an attempt to end their life.”
“It doesn’t happen every day but it happens. A couple of times a week we will save somebody’s life.”
He said the media reports on deaths at Nottingham Prison but not the lives saved.
“They [the media] don’t count how many people that we cut ligatures off their neck, how many lives we save, how many people we’ve saved when they’ve cut themselves open,” he said.
His claim is supported by the Prison Officers’ Association which confirmed suicide attempts are not recorded in official figures.
“It’s a local category B prison which is receiving from the courts so you’ve got people in there who have possibly been in court for the first time, they have the possibility of a big sentence and they are really struggling to cope,” Jackie Marshall, from the POA, said.
“Before the cutting of staff, prison officers had time to sit down and talk to prisoners and quite often they would open up and we could help them, but now staff just don’t have the time to talk to prisoners.”
The prison officer believes that while HMP Nottingham is “in a dire place”, it is comparable to other prisons.
He previously worked at a prison in the North East and came to Nottingham on a temporary basis eight months ago to help with staffing shortages.
Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke noted that more than half of the staff at HMP Nottingham had less than one year’s experience and this “clearly showed in their dealings with prisoners”.
The prison officer said many people leave after six months to get jobs outside of the prison service.
“Why would you work in a prison for the money that we’re on when you could go and get the same, if not more, in a supermarket?” he said.
He takes home about £1,600 a month after deductions.
“Sort the wage out and you will keep the staff. You wouldn’t have members of staff with eight, nine or ten years’ experience leaving to go and work in a holiday park as a security manager, or in Tesco as a forklift truck driver,” he said.
Jackie Marshall from the POA agrees.
“We’ve got issues throughout the country with recruiting and it’s the same at Nottingham,” she said.
“They [the government] brought in new pay scales in 2012 which lowered the starting pay for officers. Some of them come in and think it’s not worth staying with what they see.”
“They let a lot of experienced staff go when they did the cuts,” she said.
“They [the government] wanted the new staff in on the new pay scale. And we do have experienced staff leaving now because of what’s going on.”
As a result, she said, the prison has “new staff teaching new staff”.
The prison recorded about 200 assaults in the six months prior to being inspected, and about half of these were against staff.
Over two-thirds of the men surveyed at HMP Nottingham said they had felt unsafe at some point during their stay at the prison.
“I can guarantee 100% of members of staff in there have felt unsafe at some point,” said the prison officer.
“In the last six months I’ve been assaulted. A couple of weeks after that a prisoner assaulted two members of staff. One was off for a while with concussion, one had a dislocated jaw.
“Nobody knows if you are going to get dragged into a cell like the poor girl in a prison elsewhere.
“Why would you want to risk your life every single day?”
Ms Marshall said: “The level of violence faced by staff and prisoner-on-prisoner is horrendous, the self-harm that prisoners are causing themselves and the deaths in custody are horrendous, and staff have seen some terrible things.”
Drink and drugs
The prison officer said multiple staff on one of the wings were “kicked in the back and punched in the head” on Christmas Day by prisoners who were drunk on homemade alcohol or “hooch”.
Drugs previously known as legal highs, like Spice and Black Mamba, cause even more problems, he said.
“On a daily basis on my wing alone we are dealing with five, six or seven attacks, where they go into the zombie state, as it’s been quoted, and it’s the scariest thing in the world,” he said.
“It’s the scariest thing because when you are responding to it you don’t know whether you are going to get punched in the face, whether they are going to be sick on you, whether they are going to die.”
Following an inspection in February 2016, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said Nottingham had “suffered from a lack of continuity and consistency in its leadership” – having had five governors in four years.
The current governor, Tom Wheatley, has been in post since June 2016.
“If they were to get rid of Mr Wheatley who is in charge now it will not get any better. It will only get worse,” said the prison officer.
“If he was made to leave after this inspection it would be an absolute travesty. He is by far the best governor around. He needs to stay in Nottingham for it to improve.”
Despite the problems at the prison, he “loves” the work he does.
“I’m very proud of where I work, I love Nottingham prison, I love my job – and no report will change that,” he said.
“I think 80% of the staff will tell you the same thing, they are proud of Nottingham Prison, they are proud of Governor Wheatley, they are proud of the other members of staff.”
Ms Marshall acknowledged Nottingham “is among the worst” prisons in the country but singled out Mr Wheatley for praise.
“I think if it wasn’t for him they would be facing worse problems than they are now,” she said.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said: “We have been clear that we should be held to account for the state of our prisons and that is why we introduced this urgent notification process.
“The Chief Inspector has rightly identified the very difficult challenges and circumstances staff at HMP Nottingham are facing and it is clear they need support to help deliver a safer establishment for staff and offenders.
“We have already provided more experienced staff to the prison and boosted the number of prison officers by more than 100. I will be looking closely at the issues faced by the prison and will publish an action plan within 28 days which will urgently drive improvement required.”
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