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Page last updated at 10:11 GMT, Monday, 16 April 2007 11:11 UK

Life behind bars

A gritty hard-hitting Guardian Films investigation for Panorama into the reality of life behind bars in one of the country's increasing number of private prisons.

Rye Hill prison
Rye Hill, a private finance initiative prison, opened in January 2001

Not a single jail built in the past 10 years is state run.

Rye Hill prison in Warwickshire is a Category B jail and home to 600 prisoners, all serving a minimum of four years.

These are experienced offenders and include criminals notorious for the Iranian Embassy Siege and the Strangeways prison riots.

Only eight jails in the country have higher security ratings.

The programme reveals that the inmates often know more about the prison system than the Prison Custody Officers (PCOs) guarding them.

'Extremely volatile'

Rye Hill is run by the privately-owned British company GSL (formerly Group 4), which has a multi-million pound empire stretching from the south of England to South Africa and southern Australia and contracts to run three prisons.

In the past two years, Rye Hill has experienced a murder, two suicides and two damning reports by HM's Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers.

She tells the programme her inspectors found Rye Hill to be "extremely volatile".

Her team were actually inside the jail, carrying out an inspection, when prisoner Wayne Reid was stabbed twice through the heart, murdered in his cell by two fellow prisoners, both of whom had criminal records for violence and using knives.

Ms Owers says the killing while they were there merely confirmed her team's view of Rye Hill.

"They had already established to their own satisfaction that they felt it was unsafe and unstable for both prisoners and staff," she says.

Escalating threats

Panorama's undercover man was former SAS-trained ex-British Army soldier "Ken" (not his real name).

He worked at the jail for five months undergoing a 13-week training period to become a prison officer, earning just 250 a week - a third less than his colleagues in the state sector.

Yearly turnover of the 150 staff has been running at 40% but GSL claim that figure has been significantly reduced in the first three months of this year.

During his time on the wings, Ken saw officers being openly threatened and intimidated by prisoners.

One newly-qualified officer is deemed too keen on doing her job and enforcing the prison's rules.

Prisoners pass messages through a senior prison officer to tell her something bad will happen to her and that "she needs to back off."

People shouldn't be surprised by the fact that prisoners in a prison seek to coerce staff into making their lives easier
John Bates, GSL director of corporate communications

They complain that she "lacks decorum", adding: "There's a lot of tension on the wing at the moment."

The object of their veiled threats tells Ken of a warning being passed from a prisoner with a violent criminal record, "Mr Whittington".

The warning is passed on to her via a senior colleague.

The officer says: "Mr Whittington had told her to tell me that he'd got my back but something was going to happen to me and to stop doing my job and X (the officer) was going like you really need to stop it."

The threats escalate and she is threatened with a pool cue by the same prisoner, Mr Whittington.

"The thing is, I'm feeling very threatened..." she tells Ken, adding: "They're going to kill me I do believe."

GSL's director of corporate communications, John Bates, told the programme: "People shouldn't be surprised by the fact that prisoners in a prison seek to coerce staff into making their lives easier and we don't hide from that fact. That's why during the training we return to that theme regularly."

And of the officer he says: "She shouldn't be frightened. She's fully supported. (It's) absolutely first class that she is trying to apply the rules."

Telephone banking

Ken was not alone in Rye Hill. The programme team had people on the inside ringing them with regular updates of what was going on in the jail and others on the outside going to visit inmates.

Inmates past and present confirmed that intimidation of officers was an ongoing and long-term problem at Rye Hill.

Another inmate offers Ken up to 1,500 for one delivery of cannabis

In a phone call to Guardian journalist Eric Allison one said: "I've witnessed inmates being paid drugs to go and assault a member of staff just to get that member of staff off the wing because they didn't like that particular member of staff. If a member of staff was doing their job properly inmates didn't like that."

Ken is also openly approached by inmates seeking to "groom" him into a smuggler, asking him to bring in mobile phones and drugs.

One inmate gives the price list of what he can get for any mobile phones smuggled in: 200 for a standard phone, rising to 500-750 for a camera phone.

How do the prisoners say they will make any payments?

By telephone banking of course! All conducted from the privacy of their cells on illicit mobile phones.

Another inmate offers Ken up to 1,500 - more than he earns in a month from GSL - for one delivery of cannabis and claims to have had at least two other officers in his employ.

Ken reported the offer to smuggle drugs into the jail, along with his concerns about other officers, to the security manager at Rye Hill.

He was told to fill in security intelligence reports on what had happened.

GSL's John Bates said the prisoners' behaviour was "completely unacceptable" but said of Ken: "He failed his colleagues and put himself at risk."

Panorama: Life Behind Bars will be broadcast on Monday, 16 April, 2007 at 2030 BST on BBC One.

Life behind bars: transcript
17 Apr 07 |  Panorama
New private prison gets go-ahead
21 Jun 06 |  Edinburgh, East and Fife
Jail staff 'bullied by inmates'
27 Jul 05 |  Coventry/Warwickshire
Prisoner killed by fellow inmate
13 Apr 05 |  England
Suicidal inmate loses razors case
06 Apr 05 |  Coventry/Warwickshire
Two suspended after inmate death
25 Mar 05 |  Coventry/Warwickshire
Private prison failings exposed
09 Mar 05 |  Real Story

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