Prison officers fear 'it's going to go off any day' at HMP Liverpool

A photo taken inside HMP Liverpool
A photo taken inside HMP Liverpool -Credit:Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo

A whistle-blower at HMP Liverpool has claimed staffing levels are "frighteningly low" with prison officers fearing "it's going to go off in here any day".

A trusted source at the Walton prison has told the ECHO that the prison "is in crisis" and claimed both staff and prisoners don't feel safe. The worrying allegations, told to the ECHO over a number of weeks, include claims that the prison is forced to run with 25 fewer staff members than it is supposed to on certain days.

When approached with the allegations made by the whistle-blower, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said it would be seeking assurances that unsafe working practices are not a regular occurrence at HMP Liverpool.

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The Ministry of Justice told the ECHO the prison increased its number of full-time staff in 2023, but sickness absence was significantly impacting staffing levels. The ECHO was told continued work is ongoing to focus on staff well-being to improve attendance levels at the prison.

The allegations come nearly two years after the prison's most recent inspection by the chief inspector of prisons, which found the steps taken in recent years were "very encouraging", built upon a "good approach to care, predicated on good staff-prisoner relationships".

But the whistle-blower has claimed "inter-staff and prisoner relationships are worse than they have ever been" with guards being overstretched to provide adequate care and attention.

The ECHO has been told:

  • Staffing levels are "frighteningly low" with prison officers being asked to cover two wings by leaving the gates open.

  • Management at the prison have responded to staff concerns by claiming "it's much worse elsewhere".

  • Specialist units - including the dedicated search team - have been removed.

When approached by the ECHO regarding the claims, Mark Fairhurst, chair of the POA and serving staff member at HMP Liverpool, confirmed the prison does not have dedicated search teams and are covered by an area resource. He added: "We are constantly told we are top of the league for staff sickness, but sick numbers are reducing."

Mr Fairhurst added he does not have knowledge of gates being left open, but would be raising the concerns with senior leaders at the prison. He told the ECHO: "As a serving member of staff at HMP Liverpool, these issues cause me immense concern and I will be seeking assurances that unsafe working practices are not a feature of the daily routines at HMP Liverpool.

"Senior leaders at the prison need to be aware that I will not accept shortcuts or rogue working practices that place staff at risk, and the POA will react accordingly if these concerns are accurate. Staff safety is non-negotiable."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told the ECHO: "Thanks to successful recruitment efforts, HMP Liverpool increased its number of officers by eight per cent in 2023, and the prison has measures in place to ensure there are always safe staffing numbers available.

"We have also invested £100m into tough security measures to clamp down on the contraband that fuels violence behind bars and have equipped officers with PAVA spray and body-worn cameras to boost protection."

If you work at HMP Liverpool, have a family member in prison or have recently been released yourself and would want to talk about your experiences, please email

HMP Liverpool - a Victorian-era inner-city category B prison known locally as Walton - drew significant, negative criticism following its previous inspections in the 2010s which found it was a "squalid" environment infested with rats and cockroaches. In 2017, it was in such a state of disrepair that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) transferred out hundreds of prisoners and invested millions to restore the prison.

However, more recent media reports have painted a more positive picture of the work ongoing at the prison. A Telegraph article in 2022 heard the refurbishment had brought the prison into the 21st century. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said: "With investment, you can make it into a decent prison with the right staff."

But the ECHO's source in the prison said HMP Liverpool's resources are severely stretched, "putting staff and prisoners at risk". The whistle-blower said: "Staff often make comments such as 'it's going to go off in here one day', the Oscar, which is the call sign given to the leading custodial manager who is the operational lead for any given day, is often robbing Peter to pay Paul for want of a better phrase.

HMP Liverpool on Hornby Road, Walton, Liverpool.
HMP Liverpool on Hornby Road, Walton, Liverpool. -Credit:Liverpool Echo

"Due to staffing levels being low, officers are often being asked to cover two wings by leaving the gates open and going between both wings. However, each wing could have a number of vulnerable prisoners that require set times to be checked, making the officers' work very difficult, considering the needs of the other prisoners and accounting for any emergencies.

"Staff worry that should there be a cell fire, or an altercation between cell mates sharing, or a suicide, that nobody will be available to respond in time. If they can't get enough staff to man every wing, and those staff can't leave their wings unmanned, who is it that comes in an emergency?"

The whistle-blower also claimed both inmates and staff feel unsafe due to the lack of adequate staffing. They said prison guards have been targeted, including a worrying incident outside the prison that saw a staff member's car torched while it was parked outside the front entrance.

As previously reported by the ECHO, a group of masked offenders set the BMW on fire before escaping on a moped. The Prison Service declined to comment when approached by the ECHO, while Merseyside Police confirmed it was investigating.

The whistle-blower claimed staff believe it is only a matter of time before another serious incident happens. The ECHO has also seen evidence of a social media account, which we are not naming, that has been created to share images of staff members and their children asking for information on where they live and socialise.

The Ministry of Justice said it has increased the national amount of staff in recent years, with nearly 5,000 extra prison officers than in March 2017. It has also invested £100m in prison security aimed at reducing crime, while new legislation outlined in The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has doubled the maximum penalty for violence perpetrated towards officers.

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