A former prison governor who exchanged “intimate” WhatsApp messages with an inmate “in the course of a highly inappropriate relationship” has been jailed for eight months.
Victoria Laithwaite, 47, sent messages to 30-year-old prisoner James Chalmers after problems in her marriage, Northampton Crown Court heard.
Laithwaite, of Kislingbury, Northamptonshire, was at the time governor of category C prison HMP Onley in Northamptonshire, while Chalmers was there serving a prison sentence of two years and nine months.
Chalmers, of Coventry, was sentenced on Thursday to two years in prison for having a mobile phone in prison and for sending messages from prison without authority.
Judge Adrienne Lucking QC told Laithwaite that her offence was “aggravated by your serious breach of trust in your role as a prison governor”.
“You’ve been trained for your role and know better than anyone the risks of prisoners being in possession of phones,” she said.
Sinjin Bulbring, prosecuting, said Chalmers’s prison cell was searched on April 7 2021 and officers found two mobile phones, four sim cards and a memory stick.
The judge said an image of Laithwaite was saved on one of the phones, with no further detail given about this.
Mr Bulbring said one of the phones showed Whatsapp messages between the handset and a number “held by the prison as a contact number for Ms Laithwaite”.
The messages were sent and received between April 4 and April 5 2021.
The judge said when Laithwaite’s phone was seized the WhatsApp application had been removed, but call data showed attempted calls to two numbers linked to two of the sim cards found in Chalmers’s cell.
She said that further interrogation of the phones made it “clear that the phones had been used to communicate with Victoria Laithwaite in the course of a highly inappropriate relationship”, adding that this was “characterised as being of an intimate nature”.
Both defendants admitted the offences at earlier hearings.
Sarah Allen, for Chalmers, said: “It’s accepted that there was a degree of intimacy between him and his co-accused.”
She said Chalmers got the phone from another prisoner and the “governor’s details were already there and she initiated the contact with him”.
Sarah Mahmud, for Laithwaite, said the former prison governor was “deeply ashamed, utterly embarrassed and deeply regretful”.
“In committing this offence Mrs Laithwaite has singlehandedly destroyed her own life,” she said.
“She’s destroyed the lives of her husband, children and parents and they’ve started to try to rebuild their lives.”
She said that Laithwaite’s husband works at the prison and “has had to go into work every day knowing people are talking about this”.
The defence barrister said the prosecution’s case was that the communication “took place in just shy of three weeks and there were two phone calls”, which she described as “attempted phone calls without any duration”.
She said there had been a “breakdown” in Laithwaite’s marriage “that had led her foolishly into the position where she succumbed to this contact”.
She said there was no evidence of a physical relationship between Laithwaite and Chalmers.
Part way through mitigation for Laithwaite, the judge warned Chalmers to stop smirking and shaking his head.
Laithwaite had been working as head of safer custody and equalities when she was arrested in May 2021.
Her role involved having responsibility for ensuring the support of the most vulnerable inmates.
She previously pleaded guilty to an offence under Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007.
Both defendants were given prison sentences, and the judge ordered that the phones found in Chalmers’s prison cell be forfeited and destroyed.
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “While the vast majority of prison staff are hard-working and dedicated, as this case shows we will never hesitate to pursue the strongest possible action against those few individuals who break the rules whatever their role.”