The Secret Prison Corruption Epidemic The Government Doesn't Want You To Know About

Corrupt officers are smuggling hard drugs, phones, and weapons to inmates – fuelling a rise in violence inside HMP Pentonville and other prisons across Britain – but the authorities don’t want you to know about it.

Posted on

The prison service is suppressing evidence of widespread corruption among its own officers to conceal gaping flaws in security systems designed to prevent inmates from getting drugs, phones, and weapons, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.

Prison guards are themselves smuggling in the contraband, which is fuelling an explosion of violence behind bars, evidence from documents and whistleblowers has revealed. High-level insiders from across the prison system have accused authorities of failing to act on thousands of warnings about suspicious staff and instead burying the evidence.

The number of prison staff expelled or otherwise punished for corruption has almost doubled in the last five years, according to figures obtained by BuzzFeed News under freedom of information laws. But the government has refused to reveal the total number of internal corruption reports that were filed against officers in the same period, on the extraordinary basis that the information would show up “weaknesses in operational response” and could convince criminals that “risks were worth taking”.

However, BuzzFeed News has obtained a cache of internal documents and interviewed 32 insiders from more than 10 major prisons to piece together the scale of the problem the authorities are trying to keep under wraps.

Secret corruption reports from inside HMP Pentonville – where two prisoners recently broke free and nine inmates have been stabbed in the past eight weeks – reveal repeated warnings about corrupt officers trafficking drugs, colluding with escape attempts, and smuggling weapons at the high-security prison. One officer who remains at the prison today has kept his job despite “good” evidence that he was involved in drug trafficking, after investigating officers accidentally blew the identities of the whistleblowers who reported him, making it “unsafe” to pursue the case.

Officers, governors, security staff, inspectors, and former inmates told BuzzFeed News that acute staff shortages, low pay, and overcrowding in prisons had exposed major vulnerabilities to sophisticated criminal gangs targeting susceptible officers, and that swingeing funding cuts had left security teams woefully ill-equipped to tackle increasingly rampant corruption. They blamed the ready supply of hard drugs and weapons brought in by corrupt officers for the violence and rioting currently sweeping Britain’s jails.

Following a six-month investigation, BuzzFeed News can reveal:

  • Prisons across the country are being “flooded” with heroin, crack, and cannabis by officers working for criminals running drug trafficking rings from behind bars.

  • Officers at HMP Pentonville were accused of supplying guns and ammunition to dangerous convicts.

  • Britain’s largest prison, HMP Wandsworth, has been labelled “Carphone Warehouse” because of the variety of smartphones staff are selling for up to £1,500 a handset, allowing inmates to orchestrate smuggling operations and other criminal activities from inside their cells.

  • Administrative staff are allegedly taking bribes of around £5,000 a time to move dangerous inmates to lower-security prisons where drugs, mobiles, and other contraband can be brought in more easily.

  • Insiders say prison bosses are manipulating figures, turning a blind eye to serious allegations, and allowing staff caught smuggling drugs to move on to other jails in order to cover up the corruption in their own establishments.

  • Independent monitoring boards tasked with inspecting prisons in England and Wales are failing to investigate corruption and suppressing criticism of management.

Senior politicians called on the government to launch an independent public inquiry in response to the revelations by BuzzFeed News. Bob Neill, the chairman of the justice select committee, said the disclosures “expose very serious failures in the prison system” and demanded the “fullest possible investigation” by an inquiry overseen by an independent legal chair.

HMP Pentonville's local MP, Labour frontbencher Emily Thornberry, said the evidence uncovered by BuzzFeed News was "extremely disturbing" and accused the Ministry of Justice of "sticking its head in the sand". "This just confirms that, whether it is Pentonville or elsewhere, our prisons are now at breaking point," she said. "They are overcrowded, understaffed, plagued with corruption, and wide open to the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and mobile phones."

Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, backed calls for a public inquiry and warned that government cuts had left prisons “hugely understaffed” and low pay needed to be “urgently examined”. “T​here has been an increase in violence on staff and that makes me wonder how anyone would be willing to undergo that sort of career for a starting salary of £24,700,” he said​. “The temptation to find other sources of income must be huge.​”​

The revelations come as the prison service faces its deepest crisis in decades, with staff and inmates in mutiny at the increasingly squalid and dangerous conditions behind bars. Around 10,000 officers walked out on strike last month after new figures revealed there had been 23,000 prison assaults in the past year, including 6,000 attacks on staff, and a 38% rise in violence involving weapons. HMP Bedford was overrun by riots in November, while HMP Pentonville was rocked by the escape of two inmates and a spate of stabbings, including a killing using a hunting knife, and inmates at several other prisons posted graphic images of drugs and violence on social media.

The justice secretary Liz Truss announced a £550 million bid to tackle the crisis last month, pledging to hire 2,500 more officers, revamp ageing jails, and install sophisticated “jamming equipment” to block the use of mobile phones. In addition, the Ministry of Justice said it planned to devise and implement a new strategy for tackling corruption in 2017.

The ministry said in a statement that “the vast majority of our staff are hard-working and honest” and said it took “swift action against those who involve themselves in corruption, putting fellow members of prison staff in harm’s way in the process”. It said there was “no evidence” to support the allegations sent to officials by BuzzFeed News and that all corruption reports are investigated and shared with the police.

But senior officers from across the prison system told BuzzFeed News that endemic corruption was not being addressed. Adrian Lovell, who worked as a drugs prevention officer at HMP Wandsworth until last year, said corrupt officers were responsible for bringing in as much as 80% of the contraband found in prisons and warned of a “a direct link” between those officers and “rising violence”.

He said prison authorities were obscuring the scale of the corruption by creating the false perception that most of the drugs, phones, or weapons behind bars were flown in by drone or thrown over prison walls – routes that he said in fact accounted for less than 20% of the contraband intercepted at Wandsworth. “The way things come into prison is officers walking through the front door,” he said.

Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, said trafficking drugs and mobile phones into prison had become “a big-money industry” and warned that officers struggling to get by on low wages were left vulnerable to temptation. “Corruption is a bigger issue now than it was before,” she said. “The vast majority of staff are honest and hard-working and want to see corrupt staff dealt with as they present a danger to prison safety and security.”

"The anti-corruption methods for prisons are incredibly under-resourced. The whole thing is a complete dog’s breakfast."

John Podmore, the former governor of HMP Belmarsh and HMP Brixton, said “the anti-corruption methods for prisons are incredibly under-resourced” and “the whole thing is a complete dog’s breakfast”. During his career as a governor, Podmore “didn’t have the resources to investigate corruption so we used to have to find other reasons to sack people”, he said. “It isn’t something the prison system is wanting to tackle or recognise.”

The evidence gathered by BuzzFeed News reveals serious failings in the systems used to detect and investigate corruption in prisons. Officers are required to file a “security information report” if they suspect a colleague of wrongdoing – but anti-corruption teams are often so understaffed that reports can be filed away without even being read. Staff at prisons across the country complained that governors wilfully ignored corruption and manipulated figures to cover up the extent of the problem. Many officers told BuzzFeed News they did not bother to submit reports, because they knew nothing would come of it. Others said they were frightened to report corruption, because moles within the anti-corruption teams were suspected of leaking the names of whistleblowers.

There are also serious concerns that the independent monitoring boards (IMBs) tasked with overseeing the running of prisons in England and Wales are failing to detect corruption. John Weightman, the former vice president of the national council of IMBs, warned that the watchdogs are “hopeless” and “can be easily controlled by the governor”.

BuzzFeed News has obtained evidence that an IMB member in Norwich was repeatedly suspended for raising concerns about issues including the smuggling of mobile phones and the handling of deaths in custody at the city prison.

The national IMB framework requires the boards to conduct “frequent, systematic, and purposeful observation” of the prisons under their watch and raise any concern “as soon as it arises” with governors or ministers. ​But the chair of HMP Pentonville’s IMB, Camilla Poulton, told BuzzFeed News she did not see it as her job to proactively monitor corruption. “​Obviously there is a flow of contraband into the prison,” she said. "There are many different routes that it might be coming into Pentonville, some more obvious than others, but it’s not something we actively pursue as a line of monitoring."

BuzzFeed News submitted a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice in May asking for figures showing the number of security information reports filed by prison officers identifying colleagues as corrupt over each of the past five years, and how many of them have been acted upon. Officials supplied data showing that the prison authorities had disciplined 151 staff members for corruption last year – almost double the number who faced action five years ago – but refused to disclose the total number of reports that had been filed.

The government acknowledged there was a public interest in disclosing the figure to “improve transparency” and to “enable the public to understand the frequency of the use of corruption prevention reporting” – but nonetheless refused the request. Officials argued that disclosing “the extent to which we used that information across the prison estate may highlight weaknesses in operational response and provide a tactical advantage to criminals as they may conclude that risks were worth taking in the view of the information provided”.

BuzzFeed News appealed the decision but was again refused. This time, officials also argued that the total figure was likely to “portray an inflated picture of the extent of the corruption in the service” because more than one member of staff may have submitted reports about the same incident of alleged corruption and “some reports may have been made maliciously”. They said the prison service has “finite resources” and “needs to target its investigative capability to address the threats posed by serious criminality”, so it would be harmful to provide information that “directs criminals to vulnerable areas”.

The extraordinary grounds for the refusal prompted BuzzFeed News to embark upon a sweeping investigation into corruption within the prison service, gathering evidence documenting the growth of the problem over the past decade.

Among the evidence is a cache of files from a landmark multimillion-pound corruption probe into 14 officers at Pentonville prison that was launched in 2006 but fell apart in 2009 without any action. Secret documents reveal that the probe folded and all of the officers were allowed to return to work after a series of major blunders – and after serious suspicions had been raised about a further 17 officers who were never fully investigated. Leaked security information reports from inside the prison reveal the officers had been accused of smuggling weapons and ammunition; helping inmates attempt to break out; trafficking heroin, crack, and cocaine; and supplying mobile phones to inmates to allow them to carry on their criminal activities from behind bars. The Ministry of Justice said the allegations had been “investigated fully”, and the governor of Pentonville declined to comment.

Since the investigation closed, insiders at the prison say the problem of corruption has continued to spiral – a concern echoed by senior officers at prisons across the country who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

This is the secret inside story of how corruption has spread throughout the prison system, and how efforts to expose the rot have been blocked.

Inside the hulking Victorian walls of HMP Pentonville on the outskirts of north London, Andy Watts was getting to grips with his new role as head of security at one of Britain’s most dangerous prisons when he made a troubling discovery. Settling into his new office, Watts opened the filing cabinet and did a double take. The bottom drawer was haphazardly stuffed full of security information reports – the official forms used by staff to report serious incidents at the prison – and as he rifled through he found they were packed with allegations of corruption against dozens of serving officers. There were around 200 forms in the filing cabinet, accusing staff of trafficking hard drugs and weapons to violent inmates, soliciting bribes, supplying mobile phones, having sex with prisoners, and offering to aid escape attempts. Worst of all, it was clear these reports had never even been processed – let alone acted upon.

Watts was a stickler, tall and wiry with a trim goatee and a sharp tongue, and he had strong views about the right way to run a prison. He was not going to let this discovery lie. What he did next would spark the biggest corruption scandal in Pentonville’s history, triggering a multimillion-pound investigation that saw 14 officers suspended in a blizzard of publicity and creating a staff shortage that forced the prison to close an entire wing.

The announcement of the investigation in August 2006 was heralded as a watershed moment for the fight against corruption in prisons. But three years later, the probe would lie in tatters, shut down without any successful action against any of the accused officers – many of whom remain in the prison system today. The staggering failures of that investigation are laid bare for the first time in secret files from inside the prison. Insiders said the collapse of the investigation paved the way for corruption at the prison to flourish in the years since. “They did miss an opportunity,” a senior anti-corruption officer with oversight of security at Pentonville said. “They didn’t put a lid on it.”

Watts took the evidence he had found in his filing cabinet straight to the top, the files show, telling the prison’s then governor, Gary Deighton, that hundreds of corruption reports had been ignored under his watch and handing over a dossier outlining the allegations. Deighton, a portly stalwart of the prison establishment, did not see the urgency of the situation. The governor initially told Watts “there were greater security priorities for the prison at that time”, the files show, and instructed him to concentrate on more “basic security matters” such as foiling attempted escapes and addressing a recurring issue with “gates being left unlocked”.

Senior sources from inside the prison told BuzzFeed News that Watts was considered pushy and “non-cerebral”, and managers were dismissive of his dossier. But some time later and for unspecified reasons, Deighton changed his mind. Watts was given the go-ahead to delve deeper into the evidence, and to handpick a crew of trusted officers to help him with the secret task, which would be codenamed “Operation Extract”. Deighton, Watts, and the current governor of Pentonville all declined to comment on the investigation when contacted by BuzzFeed News.

Watts and his team of helpers spent 16 weeks trawling through the security reports surrounded by banks of glowing monitors showing CCTV of the shadowy prison wings. The files contained intelligence supplied by staff members and registered prisoner informants that officers were trafficking hard drugs, phones, and weapons for organised gangs inside the prison – and, in some cases, having sexual relationships with prisoners. Some were suspected of having drug, alcohol, or debt problems of their own that made them particularly vulnerable to corrupt approaches.

Informants had described in detail how the gangs used mobile phones to organise for contraband and cash payments to be delivered to corrupt officers at agreed pick-up points outside the prison. Officers then brought the contraband into the prison in confectionary packets or in some cases by concealing it in their body cavities, the reports said. Concerns had been raised that they were being tipped off to planned staff searches in advance.

“It’s so easy to get things in because you barely ever get searched. If you wanted to be extra careful you just put it up your arse.”

“It’s so easy to get things in because you barely ever get searched,” one officer who worked at the prison during the investigation told BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity. “If you wanted to be extra careful you just put it up your arse.”

At the end of the four months, the Operation Extract team had produced disciplinary files detailing corruption cases against 31 officers. The stack of files landed on Deighton’s desk in August 2006. It was now up to the governor to decide what to do next. He dismissed 17 without any further investigation – meaning neither the accused officers nor the whistleblowers who had made the allegations against them were ever even questioned.

Soon after, the remaining 14 officers were summoned into the governor’s office and informed they were being suspended on suspicion of corruption. At the same time, the London area manager called in four senior officers from other prisons across the capital and tasked them with leading the investigation. The suspensions put Pentonville at the centre of a maelstrom of media attention, making headlines in every national paper and on the BBC. The purpose of bringing in managers from other prisons to run the probe was, the files show, “to demonstrate and ensure objectivity and independent analysis”.

The remaining 14 cases were divided up between the external investigators, who were asked to complete their work within three weeks and submit “very concise” reports on their findings. An internal review of the inquiry process, seen by BuzzFeed News, noted that this “extremely tight” timescale was impossible for “very busy senior managers” who were juggling the inquiry with their day jobs running other London prisons. The work was complex and the investigators overshot their three-week deadline by several months. The files show they complained they “did not feel supported in what they were doing” and that requests for important information were “not being sufficiently responded to” by the prison. In short, the independent investigators found themselves grappling with allegations of serious and organised corruption in a hurry, with limited resources, and without access to all the information they needed to get to the bottom of the intelligence.

Security information reports from inside Pentonville reveal the severity of the allegations the investigators faced. The prevalence of corruption had been repeatedly flagged in the years before Watts arrived at the prison. A memo written by a senior member of the security department two years before had warned that “a number of staff at Pentonville (some known and some unknown) have been involved, to different extents, in trafficking drugs, mobile, phones and alcohol into the jail” and raised “suspicion that staff have been taking payments to transfer prisoners wings and in some cases transfer to other jails”.

One of the Pentonville 14 had been the subject of more than 30 separate corruption reports, all alleging that he and several associates were bringing in heroin. Two officers were suspected of offering help with escape attempts – by supplying prison officers’ uniforms as a disguise or by offering to take inmates on hospital visits where they could be “sprung”.

Intelligence in the files also suggested “a handgun had allegedly been brought into the prison” by another of the 14 officers. The Metropolitan police had separately sent warning that they believed a prisoner was expecting delivery of a firearm, and a registered prisoner informant had told his handler that ammunition had been smuggled in by one of the Pentonville 14.

Several officers who had submitted these reports complained about the prison’s “inaction” in response to their warnings, documents show, and told bosses they “no longer had any confidence in the security department to take appropriate action in response to intelligence”.

One Pentonville whistleblower said she had filed "hundreds" of corruption reports that were ignored. She told BuzzFeed News there was one officer in particular about whom there were “great pieces of intel” from informants implicating him in drug trafficking, and that she and her colleagues had filed copious reports including “10 really gritty ones, full of detail”, but no action had been taken. Many of the unread reports Watts had found in his filing cabinet related to this officer. He was among the 14 to be suspended once the intelligence against him had been properly reviewed.

The internal review of the Operation Extract investigation seen by BuzzFeed News noted that some of the intelligence against the Pentonville 14 “did not withstand robust interrogation” – but the case against this officer was judged to be “good”. Yet the documents reveal that the handling of this critical case was catastrophically botched, throwing the whole inquiry into chaos.

There were three key whistleblowers who had submitted evidence against this officer, and they had all been promised anonymity by prison managers who recognised that informants were “genuinely in fear” for their safety. But the investigator to whom this crucial case was entrusted had apparently missed that memo. When the interview went ahead, he told the suspect the names of the colleagues who had accused him of trafficking heroin and other hard drugs into the prison.

The consequences of this lapse were calamitous. When governor Deighton learned that the three whistleblowers had been exposed, he decided it would be dangerous to continue and gave orders to shut down the investigation into this officer. The internal review noted that “it was felt unsafe to proceed” once the officer knew the identities of his accusers. The result was that the officer was allowed to return to work at Pentonville.

The whistleblowers were petrified to learn that the colleague they had accused of serious criminality would be back in their midst. Shortly after his return, documents show, one whistleblower reported that she had found an A4 piece of paper in her pigeonhole upon which the words “Fucking Bitch R.I.P. Fucking Cow” had been scrawled. She was signed off sick with stress and panic attacks and never returned to work. After learning that their identities had been blown, all three whistleblowers resigned from the prison service. But the officer they accused kept his job – and BuzzFeed News has established that he continues to work at Pentonville today.

Following this disastrous development, the investigators concluded their work and recommended that 12 of the 13 remaining officers should be charged with corruption. Those cases went back to Deighton, who presided over the disciplinary hearings and decided to dismiss nine of the remaining cases. Despite the effort to “ensure independence and objectivity” by appointing external investigators, it was, in the end, the governor who chose to throw out 28 of the 31 disciplinary cases that had arisen from Watts’s findings.

The three officers found guilty were sacked but later cleared and reinstated, and in 2009 it was reported that the entire investigation had folded with no effect, despite running up a bill of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

The collapse of the investigation was a major embarrassment for Pentonville and the prison service. Deighton, who had left the prison by the end of the probe and is now working as a curate in Devon, faced stinging criticism for his “incompetent and negligent” approach to the investigation, and questions were raised about whether it should ever have been launched. The prison was forced to apologise profusely. Deighton did not respond to requests for comment.

The final reports produced by the investigators based on all the intelligence submitted had not met “the required burden of proof” to expel the officers. But the internal review seen by BuzzFeed News concluded: “If the investigations had been carried out more thoroughly and in greater detail it may have been possible to offset any gaps in the analysis of intelligence by reference to the evidence produced in the investigations.”

Ten years later, the failings of the investigation are still being felt in Pentonville and beyond. Staff from inside the prison told BuzzFeed News its corruption problem has worsened in the intervening years, with security information reports (aka SIRs) still being ignored.

One officer, who left the prison last year, said: “Security staff are definitely not able to deal with SIRs that come in; they are way too understaffed and overworked.” He warned that officers “wouldn’t report things because it takes too much of your time and nothing would ever come of it anyway”.

A senior security officer who also left Pentonville last year alleged that management were “manipulating” the figures on the number of corruption reports being submitted, because “constant corrupt staff doesn’t look good”. He said gangs are “clever at recruiting” officers who are “struggling to make ends meet”, blaming the problem on low wages and miserable working conditions at the prison. The current governor of Pentonville did not respond to requests for comment.

Officers and inmates from 10 major prisons across the UK echoed the account of the Pentonville officers. They described the subtle conditioning or outright intimidation tactics being used by gangs to recruit staff, and said burgeoning corruption was being ignored or covered up by managers. Many alleged that staff caught smuggling were allowed to resign quietly or disciplined for other minor infractions to avoid the time, expense, and controversy of a full corruption probe, with the result that they could apply for jobs at other prisons.

Dominic Bryant, a former officer at HMP Brixton, said “anything that doesn’t suit the governors will be covered up”. Prison officers “get bullied and their families get threatened to bring things in for prisoners”, Bryant said, describing how one officer at Brixton who was caught with “bags of cocaine and heroin strapped to his chest and legs” had been repeatedly beaten up. “He used to come in all bruised and you used to say ‘What happened?’ and he would say ‘I hit a door’ or ‘banged my head’ or something,” Bryant said. “But he was being intimidated to bring the drugs in.” The current governor of HMP Brixton declined to comment.

Kim Lennon worked at HMP Lewes in East Sussex for 10 years until she was sacked earlier this year for blowing the whistle on security failings at the prison. She said she had reported a young officer for bringing in mobile phones for prisoners he knew from school and claimed “the governors didn’t sack him – they allowed him to resign to keep it out of the press and stop the prison getting a bad name”. The governor of HMP Lewes declined to comment.

A former officer at HMP Nottingham, who asked not to be named, said “it comes out every week that officers are smuggling drugs or having relations with prisoners” and claimed the prison service “have no clue how to do a proper investigation”. He said that during his time at Nottingham, an officer was caught by a sniffer dog bringing in a large quantity of drugs but was not charged with corruption. In the end, he claimed, the officer was sacked for “misuse of service equipment” because he had used prison bags and tags to smuggle the drugs in undetected. The governor of HMP Nottingham did not respond to questions.

"I saw five staff in total either having relationships with prisoners or bringing in drugs and none of them got nicked."

BuzzFeed News spoke to two former inmates who said they were besieged with corrupt offers from guards while serving their sentences. Ben Gunn, who served 32 years for murder at a variety of high-security prisons, said he had witnessed repeated instances in which corrupt staff were caught and allowed to resign rather than facing the sack, to hush up the scandal. “I saw five staff in total either having relationships with prisoners or bringing in drugs and none of them got nicked, none of them got fired, they all got to resign,” he said.

Gunn also claimed that corrupt administrative officers at some prisons will accept bribes to transfer inmates to lower-security institutions – an allegation repeated in leaked security information reports seen by BuzzFeed News. “You could pay around £5,000 to move to a lower-security prison,” he said.

Another former inmate, who was released from HMP Wandsworth last year after serving four years at several prisons, said corruption was “rife” and confirmed the allegation that some administrative staff will accept cash for prison transfers. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said “if you want drugs you just have to ask the right person” and that “more often than not a member of staff who is corrupt will approach you”. If the contraband is found, he said, the prison will “hush it up”.

“If I wanted a phone on the Monday I would get it by the Wednesday,” he went on. “It’s like Carphone Warehouse. Smartphone will cost you £1,500 and you would pay for that on the outside through family and friends.” The governor of HMP Wandsworth declined to comment.

The former inmate also claimed a member of staff at another prison had approached him and asked if he wanted to escape. “He openly said to me, ‘We will get you a staff uniform and I will come in tonight, pick you up, and we will walk through the front gates. You can pay me half now and half later.’ He wanted £10,000,” the former inmate said.

The sophisticated conditioning tactics used by gangs to recruit staff were described in detail by Richard Carew, a former guard who was released from prison this year after serving five years for smuggling cannabis and mobile phones into Pentonville. Bullet-headed and heavy-set, Carew never considered himself a pushover. But he had grown up close to Pentonville and he described how gangs target officers who live locally, appealing to their sympathy and building a rapport before asking them to perform increasingly compromising favours. The lines between prison officers and the inmates they guard can, he said, all too easily become blurred. “During training they tell you to not even bring a Post-it note in for a prisoner and always report everything, but as soon as I arrived at Pentonville, that was completely different,” he said. “Everyone was doing little favours for prisoners they liked.”

The real trouble started when “a friend of a friend came in” and was placed on Carew’s wing. This was not the first time someone he knew from the community had been put under his watch: Three of his former schoolmates had previously been locked up on this cell block. But this new prisoner immediately began to exploit his connection with Carew.

He complained that he hadn’t been given any socks, so Carew gave him a pair to keep his feet warm. The pair chatted, and Carew managed to get his acquaintance a job in the prison. Then, one evening, Carew said he found the prisoner “sitting in his cell in floods of tears” because his girlfriend had given birth and “he just wanted a photograph of his baby”. As a father himself, the former officer agreed to go to the prisoner’s girlfriend’s house and pick up the photo.

A week after Carew had brought in the photograph, the inmate asked him to bring in some jogging bottoms from home. He agreed, and the next week he was asked to collect a dressing gown. Carew said that he was now feeling uncomfortable and intended to stop after doing this last favour. But he said that when the inmate unbundled the dressing gown he had picked up from the girlfriend’s house, two mobile phones fell out onto the floor. “So then he had me,” he said. “I said to him that I would report it and he took me over to his drawer and pulled a picture of my house out and asked how my daughter was. It sounds like something from a gangster film, I know.”

Carew said he was frightened and “started bringing phones and packs of cannabis about the size of an iPhone” in for the inmate. “It was so easy to bring things into the prison,” he said. “You just walk through the door. In two years working there I was never checked on my way in.” But five months later, Carew's door was knocked in by the police and he was arrested in a dawn raid.

Carew’s conviction was a major victory for the London Prisons Anti-Corruption Team, a specialist unit that works in partnership with Scotland Yard, which had gathered the intelligence that led to the officer’s arrest. But BuzzFeed News spoke to three officers who have worked closely with the unit, all of whom warned it is seriously hampered by a lack of funding and acute understaffing. All three asked not to be named to protect their jobs.

“It’s demoralising when you’re doing good work and you get your budget cut year on year, not least of all because prisons are the most corrupt institution in the public sector,” one officer said, speaking to BuzzFeed News behind a set of industrial bins down a London side street after first performing a series of counter-surveillance manoeuvres. The officer said he believed 90% of the mobiles in prisons were brought in by staff – “there is no other way that many can come in” – but he said the government “won’t ever reveal the true scale of corruption because if there are any issues it goes back to the minister”.

“It’s demoralising when you’re doing good work and you get your budget cut year on year, not least of all because prisons are the most corrupt institution in the public sector.” 

A second officer said that if the government released the total number of corruption reports that had been filed against prison staff, as requested by BuzzFeed News, “it will show that they are not working on them and it will show they are not doing as much as they should be doing”. That, he said, would “send out a horrendous message to staff”, who could conclude that if “they’re not doing anything about it then we’ll just get away with it”.

A third officer confirmed that corruption exists “right across the board” in the prison system and warned that the anti-corruption unit lacks the resources it needs to tackle to scale of the problem. “It’s a bit like a cancer,” he said. “It does spread at times, and the more someone gets away with it, the more brazen they get.”

Among the most crucial elements of the system designed to ensure good governance and detect corruption are the local independent monitoring boards (IMBs) that oversee the running of prisons across England and Wales and report concerns to the Ministry of Justice. But BuzzFeed News has uncovered serious concerns that the boards are failing to hold governors to account.

John Weightman, the former vice president of the national council of IMBs, warned that chairs of the boards “don’t really know what they are doing” and get too close to the governor of their prison, “who sees them as vulnerable and will get friendly to them to prevent anything damning of the prison being reported”.

“The situation is hopeless,” he said. “There are real big issues being missed by the IMB, including staff corruption, and it’s a shame because nobody is in a better position to examine prisons.”

Ray Bewry is a former member of the board that oversees HMP Norwich. He was repeatedly placed under suspension merely for asking questions about security issues and corruption at the prison. Bewry was the first former inmate to become a member of an IMB, after he was wrongly accused of fraud in 1999 and spent two months in jail. He said he found his role “very rewarding” and he approached his work with vigour, robustly questioning prison governors and requesting access to prisoner records.

Bewry first ran into difficulty back in 2006 after he asked to review some of the prison’s security reports and came up against a brick wall. He launched a legal challenge demanding access to the full reports, and soon after received notice from the then chair of the IMB that he would be removed from the board because his “credibility and relationships with colleagues have deteriorated”, documents show. He was cleared of wrongdoing and reinstated after a three-year suspension in 2009.

At his first IMB meeting since his suspension, the problem began again. Bewry started by questioning the Norwich governor Jill Alvey about a death in custody the night before. Then he wanted to know why a group of staff who had recently been caught bringing mobile phones into the prison had been allowed to return to work the following day. He also raised concerns that some of the prison buildings in which inmates were housed were “unfit for purpose”. Alvey lost her rag, notes of the meeting show, telling Bewry: “I have not come here to be verbally attacked. He told her he was sorry for causing offence, but she did not accept, calling his apology "hollow and unrepentant”.

Straight after the meeting, Alvey met privately with the chair, Alan Edwards, to complain about the “verbal assault” she felt she had endured. “Governor Alvey and myself sat down alone in the conference room and she told me how she felt about being attacked verbally in a very loud voice by Raw Bewry,” Edwards wrote in a report after the private meeting. “Looking back as the Chair, I have felt guilty that I did not stop the verbal assault.”

Alvey followed up with a letter to Edwards making a formal complaint, saying she had been "most upset" by Bewry’s behaviour. “The I in IMB stands for independent,” she noted tartly. “Perhaps you could enlighten me how someone with such extreme pre-set views about the honesty and integrity of staff and management at Norwich Prison can hope to exercise this quality."

Alvey’s complaint was backed up by a staff member who was working in the office next door to the meeting and overheard the exchange. She wrote an email complaining about Bewry’s conduct that was also forwarded to Edwards. “I did not think that it was the role of an IMB member to criticise the establishment but was to help and monitor prisoners,” the email said.

Bewry was, once again, ousted from the IMB for raising these complaints. He said he was suspended and the investigation into his conduct took two years. Alvey, Edwards, and the current chair of the Norwich IMB all declined to comment when contacted by BuzzFeed News, and there is no suggestion they were personally involved in covering up corruption. Bewry said he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing but, by then, was so disillusioned that he decided not to go back. “Governors and chairs of IMB are always way too close – they work together too much and the independence is completely lost, Bewry told BuzzFeed News. “I wanted to look at the different areas they would rather keep hidden,” he continued. “But I was asking too many awkward questions about senior management and that meant they wanted me off the board.”

That, Bewry said, based on his nine years of experience working for Norwich IMB, is how anyone who raises criticisms or concerns about the prison establishment can expect to be treated – even if it is their job to do so. “Corruption is a huge issue for the prison service,” he said. “But I wouldn’t know how big, because when there are cases of corruption they will not let you investigate.”

Richard Holmes is an investigations assistant for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Richard Holmes at richard.holmes@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.