The jail where 18 female employees had relationships with prisoners
Eighteen female staff at a jail which has pioneered a liberal approach have had relationships with prisoners since it opened, data obtained under Freedom of Information laws has revealed.
The 18 women including full-time officers and contract staff at HMP Berwyn in north Wales have been sacked or resigned after their affairs were exposed during its first six years of operation. Three have been jailed for misconduct in a public office.
The prison which opened in 2017 as Britain’s second biggest with space for 2,000 offenders pioneered a liberal approach to create a more “domestic” environment to aid rehabilitation with cells rebranded as rooms, prison blocks known as “communities” and inmates provided with laptops when they arrive.
However, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said inexperienced officers had been exploited by “very experienced” offenders amid flaws in recruitment which meant that governors were not able to have face-to-face interviews to select their own staff. Instead, they were recruited centrally through assessment tests and Zoom interviews.
It comes as figures show a record 36 female prison officers have been sacked over relationships in the past three years, nearly double the 19 in the previous four years.
Rooting out corrupt prison officers
The Ministry of Justice has attributed the surge to a crackdown by a revamped counter-corruption unit which is now working with 20 dedicated police officers from regional organised crime units to root out corrupt prison officers.
They have targeted prisoners and staff enticed into affairs by them in order to get them to bring in drugs, phones and weapons, and even help run their criminal empires from behind bars.
Berwyn prison officer Ayshea Gunn, 27, was jailed for a year after an affair with inmate Khuram Razaq, 29, who was serving a sentence for conspiracy to rob. She swapped sex videos and inappropriate pictures and even snapped a picture of them kissing while she was supposed to be on duty at the super prison.
The four-month relationship was exposed after she shared images online. Investigators established that Gunn contacted her lover more than 1,200 times via three separate phone numbers, bought him clothes, placed bets for him and brought a smartwatch into the prison for him.
Berwyn officer Emily Watson, 26, was jailed for one year in April 2019 at the same court for performing a sex act on an inmate twice in his cell and having sex with him once. Staff became suspicious over the amount of time she was spending with prisoner John McGee and launched an investigation which exposed the affair.
Jennifer Gavin, 27, was jailed for eight months after she fell in love with inmate Alex Coxon, 25, and sent sexually explicit videos of herself to him on a phone she smuggled in.
She had accepted £150 to bring a mobile phone into the jail and communicated with him via a phone held illegally in Berwyn.
The 18 included four female prison staff who were sacked; two who were sacked by partner agencies (which could include NHS healthcare staff); three prison staff who resigned; and nine who resigned from partner agencies.
When it opened, Berwyn was hailed for its innovative approaches to rehabilitation and facilities with each prisoner given a laptop for making applications, ordering food from the canteen and booking visits.
They could use their laptops to access education materials, information, news and entertainment on a closed prison intranet. Inmates have access to a full-sized sports hall, weights and fitness room and outdoor pitches.
Mark Fairhurst, general secretary of the POA, said: “It’s inexperienced staff being conditioned by very experienced prisoners. The initial training they receive on corruption prevention is not fit for purpose combined with a low wage and high cost of living. It is tempting for people. We need to toughen up recruitment procedures.”
He said high staff turnover had resulted in increasing numbers of young new recruits being placed in frontline roles. Over the past five years, the number of female prison staff has risen by 27 per cent to 15,000 and now account for 42 per cent of all staff as part of a diversity drive.
The prison service said: “The vast majority of Prison Service staff are hardworking and honest but we are doing more than ever to catch the small number who break the rules.”
It said more than 500 members of staff at HMP Berwyn have undertaken corruption prevention training in the last 18 months.
It said its beefed-up counter corruption unit was “working around the clock” to root out errant officers. It was also renewing vetting of prison staff every 10 years, piloting social media checks on staff in higher risk roles and adding police national database checks to criminal record checks.