Violent assaults have been rising more steeply at HMP Addiewell – Scotland’s troubled private prison – than any other jail last year, according to a Ferret investigation.

There were a total of 166 assaults by prisoners last year. These included attacks by razor blades and scalding and some resulted in people being hospitalised. The majority of the assaults were on other prisoners but 44 were on staff.

In 2022 more “serious assaults” were recorded at Addiewell than at any other Scottish prison.

Yet the Ferret also heard claims that incidents were dramatically under-reported due to fears of reprisals and poor management which saw complaints “go missing”.

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One source close to the prison claimed that a culture of violence, fear and intimidation is still rampant within the prison, run by Sodexo. Other critics said a damning inspection report recently did not go far enough.

The whistleblower provided evidence of systemic issues including inaction by staff to act on intelligence which could have helped prevent assaults and keep people safe.

Scottish Labour said it would raise its “very serious failings” with the justice secretary, while some called for it to be brought back into public ownership early.

Sodexo said it had recently made “significant financial investment into the prison” but this had not yet “translated” into improvements in safety. It said recruitment and retention of staff was key to making the prison safer. 

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Last October the French facilities company reported its underlying net profit doubled to over £600m. 

Cabinet secretary for justice and home affairs, Angela Constance, said she took concerns “very seriously” and would be working with the Scottish Prison Service to ensure change.

On 4 May a report published by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) found “serious safety issues” with less than a third of inmates reporting they felt safe “all or most of the time”. About 40 percent claimed to have been abused, threatened, bullied or assaulted by staff themselves.

The prison is the fourth largest in Scotland’s prison estate. But the growing number of violent incidents in 2022 were higher than at HMP Barlinnie, the largest prison in the country and over twice the number of HMP Edinburgh – Scotland’s second largest. 

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In both 2021 and 2022 the total of violent incidents was higher at Barlinnie but numbers there fell in 2022 to a total of 147 assaults by prisoners.

The highest level of violence was reported at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, which holds prisoners under-21. Last year 197 assaults were recorded but only seven were deemed “serious”.

At Addiewell 29 of the assaults were recorded as “serious”, more than four times the number in this category at Barlinnie.

Seven prisoners were subsequently transferred to a different prison.

Reports of problems at the jail have been growing. In January Police Scotland launched an investigation after six cars, understood to belong to prison officers on the night shift, were firebombed in the car park. Three men were charged in March.

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In 2021 videos circulated showed an inmate kissing a female officer, leading to claims staff had lost control of the prison. Last week prisoners shared a video on TikTok filmed on a smartphone smuggled into the prison.

Meanwhile internal documents and internal notes shared with The Ferret by a whistleblower revealed fears that staff shortages and poor management decisions were making the prison an unsafe environment.  

We were shown reports of two cases where staff had not acted on intelligence resulting in violence, which, it was claimed, could have been prevented. In another case prisoners supposed to be held on protection wings had been assaulted when errors had brought them into contact with the mainstream prison population.

Some attacks happened in public areas of the prison. Assaults were recorded as happening at recreation time and even at the front desk.

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But others were hidden and not reported with reports of unexplained injuries being found on prisoners and staff given “implausible excuses” such as prisoners having “walked into a door” in response to questioning. In one case the prison was found to have concealed facial injuries for 24 hours by making an inmate wear a face mask.

Despite the high numbers recorded by official figures, it was claimed there were many more violent incidents that staff were not aware of.

Issues with staffing were repeatedly raised in notes. One email seen by The Ferret, originally sent by the prison director, suggests the prison may never have been fully staffed at any point since it opened in 2008.

Documents revealed short staffing levels meant there typically were two rather than three guards on at any one time, leaving wings under-supervised.

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A lack of male prisoner officers across the prison was highlighted, which sometimes meant staff were unable to physically search prisoners leaving the wing for activities, despite this being a required safety procedure. 

Last year long running fears over the lack of sharps bins for the disposal of razor blades in some wings were raised, our investigation has found.

Warnings that razor blades were going unaccounted for were heightened after a serious razor attack on a prisoner took place last October.

In June 2021 one prisoner had nine months added to a sentence he was serving for attempted murder, after a toothbrush fitted with two razor blades was found in his cell.

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According to sources there had been multiple incidents in which prisoners on the protection wing claimed their food had been tampered with. In one incident it was claimed a box of fruit was delivered to the wing marked “not for human consumption”.

Meanwhile, due to prison staff shortages, prisoners were often locked up for long periods “for their own protection” and missed education and rehabilitation programmes, exercise and religious services.

Reports suggested mental health and addiction support were often hard to access or had long waiting lists, they added.

The source said warnings raised in the recent prison report did not go far enough. They added: “The prison was notified over a month in advance of the inspection, giving them plenty of time to prepare. As damning as those findings are, they paint a rosy picture compared to the treatment and conditions people here experience for the other 51 weeks of the year.”

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It was also claimed there had been a “failure” to invest in attracting and retaining staff. “It all indicates an organisation that puts profits before the people in their care,” the source added. 

“I think we all hope the people in here won't repeat their crimes, and will build better lives when they are released. If we want them to be stable, well functioning, mentally healthy members of society, we should be providing support, not just locking them away in a dangerous wing.”

Pauline McNeill MSP, justice spokesperson for Scottish Labour, said she would raise concerns with the justice secretary.

“These findings read like the old caricature of male prisons, where prisoners are not safe and the regime is out of control,” she added.

“This is far from the type of prison environment we should be seeking to run in Scotland. Our prisons must be conducive to rehabilitation and protecting the physical and mental wellbeing of prisoners.

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“Clearly there are very serious failings taking place within Addiewell and it appears that both staff and prisoners are being badly let down by the way the prison is run.”

University of Stirling criminologist Dr Hannah Graham agreed the “troubling concerns” warranted “urgent attention”.

“This private jail has a track record of by far the highest number of prisoner complaints of any prison in Scotland combined with substantial concerns about a lack of response to those complaints and complaints 'going missing',” she added.

“If people held in Addiewell don’t feel safe, don’t feel heard, can’t access healthcare, don’t trust staff…then that’s a very worrying culture indeed.”

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Over half of Addiewell’s staff have less than two years experience, she said, making issues of under-staffing all the more concerning as they would have been used to prisoners being locked up in cells for the the vast majority of their time during Covid-19 restrictions. 

Cat Hobbs, director of public-ownership campaign group We Own It, said The Ferret’s findings were “outrageous” and in line with concerns about other privately run prisons. 

She added: “It’s time to bring Scotland's only remaining private prison back into public ownership. Instead of wasting public money on private profit margins, we could be investing in rehabilitation and safety for staff and inmates.”

Though Kilmarnock prison, run by Serco, will complete its transfer back to public ownership next year, Addiewell’s contract is due to run until 2034.

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​​An HMP Addiewell spokesperson said: “We have made significant financial investment into the prison, and whilst some subsequent positive developments were reflected in the HMIP report, this investment has not, as yet, translated into sustained results in some key areas, such as safety.

“Recruiting and retaining an increasingly experienced team of staff is critical to improving relationships and performance in these areas. This is our priority.

“Since the inspection, we have further increased levels of managerial support, altered the prison routine and started the rollout of a comprehensive improvement programme. These changes are starting to show early signs of making a positive impact, but this must now be sustained.“

An SPS spokesperson said: "We continue to rigorously monitor progress, with additional SPS resources on-site to work closely with Sodexo [and] ensure HMP Addiewell is a safe and secure prison, delivering positive outcomes for those in custody there, and supporting the wider justice sector, and our communities."

Cabinet secretary for justice and home affairs, Angela Constance, said: “The safety and wellbeing of prisoners and staff is a top priority for this government, and we will work with SPS and other partners to ensure HMP Addiewell operates as a safe and secure prison, delivering positive outcomes for those in custody and for the wider community.”

This article is a co-production with The Ferret, Scotland’s investigative platform and media coop. Join at: