HMP Northumberland inmate made thousands selling drugs smuggled in with help of crooked prison guard

Marc Bainbridge, Michael Foster and Deborah Foster admitted their part in the operation
-Credit: (Image: Northumbria Police)

A serving prisoner made thousands of pounds selling drugs to fellow inmates which had been smuggled in with the help of a corrupt prison guard.

Michael Foster was serving a nine-year sentence for violence when he recruited Marc Bainbridge, employed to uphold the law at HMP Northumberland, to help him break it. With the assistance of Foster's mother, partner and two other women, drugs worth thousands on the inside were sneaked into the Acklington jail.

Newcastle Crown Court heard Bainbridge, who said he thought it was just tobacco that was being smuggled in, was paid nearly £4,000 for his help while Foster boasted at saving up £9,000 from his illegal activities behind bars. Now Bainbridge, Foster and his mother have been jailed while three others got suspended prison sentences.

Neil Pallister, prosecuting, said: "At the time Michael Foster was a serving prisoner at HMP Northumberland. He arranged for controlled drugs to be smuggled into the prison for supply within it.

"His mother, Deborah Foster, was involved in arranging it personally and via third parties. Jodie Huntington played a leading role in smuggling drugs herself and by recruiting others to do so. Chantelle Mather and Rebecca Downs were recruited to make visits to the prison to pass on drugs.

"Marc Bainbridge was a serving prison officer who became involved in the operation, taking what he thought was tobacco and received cash payments for doing so.. He got £3,860 for doing so."

The offending first came to light when Huntington contacted police to report a domestic dispute with her former partner and when police examined her phone they found texts relating to the supply of drugs at HMP Northumberland. Huntington arranged for Mather to visit a prisoner on three occasions in 2019 and on two of them she successfully passed on narcotics. The court heard Mather was paid £100 plus £20 for food during one of the earlier visits.

She was caught on the third occasion and prison guards recovered 196 diazepam tablets and 54 buprenophine. After that happened, Michael Foster sent messages to Huntington complaining that "the screws have got it".

There were then further messages from Foster to Huntington giving instructions about what someone else should do during a visit to a prisoner to pass on drugs. After it was done successfully, Foster messaged her saying he was "buzzing".

During another visit a prison guard noticed a coat had been left on the table afterwards and a packet of drugs was found in the pocket. CCTV showed Huntington touching the coat during the visit. There was 8.25g of pregabalin, 209 diazepam tablets and ten buprenophine.

Mr Pallister said messages showed Michael Foster was telling his mother the quantity of drugs he wanted her to buy and provided her with banking details. Mr Pallister said: "Michael Foster was constantly requesting his mother to drop off or arrange for drugs to be brought into prison.

"There's reference to Michael Foster having saved "nine bar" and the Crown say that was him saying he made £9,000 profit from selling drugs."

He added: "More than 90% of the contact between Michael Foster and Deborah Foster was to facilitate bringing controlled drugs into prison. It's clear they weren't just for him and he was running the business and on a couple of occasions mentioned having £9,000 saved as a result of his activities.

"Deborah Foster was shown to spend time sourcing and arranging the purchase of controlled drugs and getting people to do visits. On the outside, she was the accountant for those activities."

In January 2020 there were messages from Michael Foster to his mother saying the "prize is not out" and saying he was having trouble passing it and he was concerned it could split inside him.

Michael Foster also discussed, in messages, drugs being thrown over the prison fence, with a suggestion subutex could be hidden in a sausage. He said drugs could be smuggled inside radios and he also discussed with his mother about getting a drone to smuggle items in.

Mr Pallister said the Covid lockdown didn't stop drugs being taken into the prison and in April 2020 Michael Foster was discussing "getting drugs in with a screw he had got" - a reference to having a prison officer helping.

Phone analysis showed there had been 368 contacts between Michael Foster and Bainbridge and 22 messages between Deborah Foster and Bainbridge, who had been a prison officer since 2016.

In one chat in September 2019, Bainbridge said: "They were searching today so I had to give it a miss." He then added that he will definitely have it in the coming days.

There were several references by Foster to paying Bainbridge "500 bar" and a series of payments, sometimes as much as £800 a time, were made to him for taking contraband into the jail. He pleaded guilty on the basis he thought it was tobacco.

The court heard in a statement from a prison officer how subutex sells in prison for £100 a tablet while half an ounce of tobacco is also worth £100. The statement said drugs in prison present a "significant threat to the safety of the prison" and "undermine security systems and are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the prison and the criminal justice system". Their presence also undermines efforts to rehabilitate inmates and lead to debts which are enforced by organised crime groups and can impact on families in the community.

Bainbridge, 32, of Fir Terrace, Burnopfield, County Durham, who has no previous convictions, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. He was jailed for 21 months.

Michael Foster, 34, of Coach Road Estate, Usworth, Washington, who has 18 previous convictions, including GBH with intent, for which he was jailed for nine years in 2017, admitted eight counts of conspiracy to supply class C drugs and conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. He was jailed for two years and eight months.

Judge Robert Spragg told him: "You were running a highly successful commercial operation from within the prison. This was a highly organised criminal operation run from inside prison and you managed to corrupt man others, including your own mother and partner."

Deborah Foster, 53, of Stridingedge, Washington, who has seven previous convictions, admitted five counts of conspiracy to supply class C drugs and conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. She was locked up for 18 months.

Huntington, 39, of Blaketown, Seghill, Northumberland, who has 20 previous convictions, admitted five counts of conspiracy to supply class C drugs. She was sentenced to 10 months suspended for 18 months.

Mather, 32, of Simonside Crescent, Hadston, Northumberland, who has 21 previous convictions, admitted two counts of conspiracy to supply class C drugs. She was sentenced to four months suspended for 12 months.

Downs, 31, of Mulberry Avenue, Marley Potts, Sunderland, who has five previous convictions, admitted three counts of conspiracy to supply class C drugs. She got six months suspended for 18 months.

Chris Knox, for Bainbridge, said: "He was not operating the business. There was an operation and he agreed to do things for it.

"He knows far too many people on both sides of the fence to serve a sentence locally. It's extremely uncomfortable for him. The sentence he will have to serve will be a long way from home. He succumbed to temptation and will pay an enormous price for it."

Helen Towers, for Michael Foster, said he is a father figure to the children of his partner, who is pregnant.. She added that he is in full-time work as a maintenance engineer with Northumbrian Water.

Andrew Espley, for Deborah Foster, said she thought it was tobacco that was being smuggled and made no financial gain. He added that she has anxiety and depression, did not intend to harm anyone and there's little chance she will offend again.

Rachel Kelly, for Huntington, said: "She had a chaotic lifestyle and had mental health issues. She has completely changed her life around, she no longer takes drugs and has started a new tanning business."

Liam O'Brien, for Mather, said: "She's had a very difficult life and has a number of limitations. She describes herself as a puppet and it's difficult to argue against that."

Nicholas Lane, for Downs, said she was in a relationship with Foster and added: "She allowed her affection and feelings for him to get in the way of her better judgement and she agreed to take part in this enterprise." He added that she thought the drugs she took in were valium and steroids.