09:06, October 12 55 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-12 09:06:03
Disorder at high-security Long Lartin fuels concern over jail system

A disturbance at a “well-staffed” high security prison has “set alarm bells ringing” in the Ministry of Justice that the increased volatility in the jail system has entered a new phase.

An official investigation got under way on Thursday into the disturbance at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire in which 81 prisoners, some of them armed with pool balls, forced staff to retreat from one wing.

The Prison Governors Association said the incident should be “ringing alarm bells at the most senior level”. John Attard, a PGA national officer, said the trouble at Long Lartin was symptomatic of cutbacks and changes in the prison service management structure.

The prisons minister, Sam Gyimah, answering an urgent Commons question, told MPs that specialist Tornado riot squads from around the country brought the incident to an end in just over an hour without injuries to staff or prisoners after being sent into the prison in the early hours.

Gyimah insisted the disturbance at Long Lartin was not the product of budget cuts, saying there was a full regime in place and no shortfall in staffing levels, and that the disturbance had been contained to one wing of the jail.

He also appeared to contradict Michael Spurr, the head of the prison and probation service, in saying the government’s manifesto pledge to close dilapidated, ageing jails across England and Wales during this parliament still stood.

Spurr told prison governors on Wednesday that closures had been ruled out due to an unexpected surge in the 86,000-strong prison population this summer and that further rises were forecast: “I anticipate that we won’t close any prisons this parliament,” he said.

Gyimah told the Commons: “Of course, our first priority is to make sure that we are in a position to provide accommodation for all those sentenced by the courts to ensure public protection, but that commitment still very much remains the case.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said Spurr had publicly admitted that another major plank of the government’s prison reform programme had bitten the dust.

“Dilapidated old prisons, rightly damned by the chief inspector’s report on prison conditions earlier this week, will now not be closing. Some will even be re-opened. ‘New for old’ has turned into ‘new at any cost’,” said Dawson.

The MoJ has promised to invest over £1bn to modernise the prison estate to create 10,000 modern prison places but the PRT said it was relying on savings from closures to fund the programme.

The rise in riots and disturbances in jails across England and Wales this year at a time of record levels of violence adds to the problem in that they often bring about the loss of accommodation in a system that is woefully short of space.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said the Long Lartin incident marked “another low point” in the government’s prison policy and questioned whether shelving the commitment to closing dilapidated Victorian jails would make prisons safer.

Burgon later highlighted MoJ figures questioning the minister’s claim that Long Lartin was well staffed. The latest published workforce figures show that in March this year the high security jail was 46 officers short of its official benchmark staffing level of 551 officers. “Long Lartin is 8% below target, which is above the average shortfall of 6.9%,” said the shadow justice secretary.