So it turns out, according to a new Panorama report, that inmates are in charge of the prison at privately-run HMP Northumberland.
The BBC programme shows shocking footage of prison officers being threatened by weapon-toting inmates, holes in security fences, huge drug stashes in rooms and security alarms that don't work. But what is more shocking, perhaps, is that it we are even surprised that this could be happening.
What more should we expect when crucial frontline state services are handed over to private firms where profit is the bottom line? Or when cuts to prison services have led to dramatic drops in the number of frontline prison staff despite an increasing prison population?
HMP Northumberland was handed over to the private security firm, Sodexo, in 2014 as part of a government drive to cut £500m from the prisons budget. Sodexo promised to save £130m over 15 years which it would achieve in part, predictably, by cutting jobs – 200 staff went including 96 frontline prison officers. At the time, the Prison Officers Association warned it could result in escapes and riots. Fast forward three years and that has been proved spectacularly right. Except that the prisoners are only escaping at night to bring back huge hauls of drugs worth millions of pounds in street value.
And it's not just happening at HMP Northumberland, or the 14 other privately-run prisons, but right across the board due to government cuts. At the same time prisoner numbers in England and Wales have almost doubled since the 1990s.
But despite the huge rise in prisoner numbers, the number of frontline prison officers in England and Wales has dropped by around 5,000 since 2010, according to government statistics. In 2013/14 alone nearly 2,000 prison staff left thanks to the government offering voluntary exit packages in a drive to slash jobs.
Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, said we shouldn't look to the "dangerous quick fix" of cutting prisoner numbers. But this is a typical piece of misdirection from the government. Of course we don't want to see the release of sexual offenders and domestic abusers, who have made up a great number of the increased prison population, but how about an increase in the wardens controlling them? This is the real fix that is required and it needs to be done quickly.
The effects of government cuts aren't just felt in controlling inmates. The case of HMP Northumberland comes hot on the heels of the inquest into the suicide of Dean Saunders at HMP Chelmsford. Saunders, although being categorised as high risk, was taken off constant suicide watch despite concerns that the decision was made on grounds of cost. And Saunders case is just one of many. A report by the Howard League last month showed that there were a record 119 suicides in prisons in England and Wales last year.
And of course it's not just in prisons that government cuts are leading to crises. I spoke to a parole officer recently who told me that most of her colleagues had needed time off with stress caused by a doubling of their workload due to job cuts. And it is well documented how the government's slashing of adult care services has led to a knock-on crisis in the NHS. Saunders' suicide alone is an example of the crossover effects of across-the-board cuts. He should never have been in a prison in the first place, but there were no medium-secure mental health beds in the whole of Essex to take the man struggling with paranoid delusions.
How many crises, suicides, and prisons gone bad will it take before the government realises its one-size-fits-all policy of slashing and privatising crucial state services doesn't work? Maybe it will take a full-scale riot where prison staff are injured or even killed. Maybe it will take an even more high-profile and shocking suicide than that of Saunders. Or maybe nothing will derail this out-of-control train (privately run of course) hurtling headlong towards crisis.
Cutting state spending is so ideologically ingrained in the Conservative government that even if prisoners from HMP Northumberland broke out and went rampaging across the country killing and looting in a Spartacus-style revolt, the government would still find a reason to cut spending – and bring in a privately-run security firm to round them up, of course.
Lee Williams is a freelance journalist and writer. Follow @leeroy112