Call for specialist drug search of prison

Aerial picture of HMP Parc in Bridgend
Ten inmates at the prison have died since 27 February [BBC]

Management at HMP Parc in Bridgend should have been quicker to act after the first drug-related death, a former prison boss said.

Vanessa Frake is a former head of security and operations at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London and said a major search for drugs should have been carried out at the prison in Bridgend.

Ten inmates have died at the privately run prison since 27 February, with at least four believed to be drug-related, while one prison staff member has been arrested in connection with drug dealing there.

Officials at HMP Parc, run by the security firm G4S, said they were "actively tackling the multiple ways that drugs enter the prison" and strengthening security measures.

Ms Frake, has 27 years experience in the prison service, and said: "To have a total of 10 deaths in just over three months is almost unheard of.

“I’d think if I’d lost one prisoner through drugs, I’d do something about it and not wait for it to be two, three and four deaths.

"I know the prisons and probation ombudsman asked prisoners to throw away any spice they might have, and I think that says it all.

“It sounds like certain procedures like searching of cells, searching of prisoners, searching of staff went by the by.”

The director of Parc prison, Heather Whitehead, who had been in charge since August 2023, left with immediate effect on Tuesday.

Will Styles, who has been with G4S for a year running HMP Five Wells in Northamptonshire, has been appointed as the new director.

Ms Frake added: “There are several things that can be done to stop drugs getting into the jail."

She said one of these would be to get a dog search team to "sweep the prison for drugs".

Commenting on what else she would do, she added: “Check every single prisoner, every single cell, every single area. Then I’d look at the prison’s search policy and see if it’s robust enough.

“A robust search policy is paramount, If there’s active robust searches, it will act as a deterrent.

“No-one wants to work in a drug-fuelled jail.“

The 10 deaths in Parc prison so far this year is the highest total of any prison in Wales on record.

It is currently nearly double the rate of 6.4 deaths per 1,000, compared to the UK prison average (year to March 2024) of 3.3 deaths per 1,000.

The previous highest total for a year was also at Parc - nine in 2016.

At least four of the deaths are believed to be drug-related, while one prison staff member has been arrested in connection with drug dealing there.

South Wales Police said in March that a nitazene - a synthetic opioid drug - had been identified in connection with all four deaths.

The force said spice, another synthetic drug, had been identified in two of the four deaths.

Leo Deacon, 23, from Abertillery, Blaenau Gwent, served time at HMP Cardiff and HMP Parc in 2021 for assaulting a police officer.

Mr Deacon has undergone treatment for alcohol addiction and said he was offered drugs while he was on the induction wing at Parc prison.

“The staffing is completely different at Parc prison, there’s not as many staff as Cardiff prison and they don’t have the same equipment," he said.

"Staff in Cardiff are equipped like the police, they’d have pepper spray, baton, and handcuffs.

“They don’t have that in Parc, they just have a radio and they’re not trained up in the same way.

“When an incident happens, like prisoners fighting, it’s dealt with quickly in Cardiff, but at Parc it always seemed longer to get it under control.

“There’s a lot more inexperienced staff as well at Parc, they seemed young, some about the same age as me and I was only 20 at the time.”

Mr Deacon said his brother is also currently serving time as an inmate at Parc prison and has been in custody since March.

He said it is a worrying time for his family with 10 inmates dying while his brother has been there.

“They’ve appointed a new director from Five Wells Prison, which is also a failing jail and appointed him in another failing jail with Parc," he said.

"I’d love for the Ministry of Justice to take over the running of Parc with their staff.”

An independent monitoring board (IMB) report for Five Wells in Northamptonshire published last September found there were too many "inexperienced operational staff" and a "reluctance by wing staff to challenge prisoners.

The IMB also said that drugs were available in most house blocks at Five Wells Prison.

Families of inmates at HMP Parc who died while in the prison protested outside the facility last month, saying they wanted answers from authorities following claims of drug misuse within the jail.

It is one of the UK's largest category B prisons, holding convicted male adult and young offenders, as well as convicted sex offenders or those awaiting trial for sex offences.

A spokesperson said a prison-wide lock down search was carried out as soon as nitazenes were detected at the prison.

“We are actively tackling the multiple ways that drugs enter the prison from the wider community while continuously strengthening our security measures to protect prisoners and staff," they added.

"This includes random and intelligence-led searches of staff, visitors and prisoners.”