PRISON officers have warned of a “powder keg” existing in North-East prisons as a sharp rise in violent assaults prompts fears of riots and large-scale disorder.

Figures released to The Northern Echo show the number of assaults by prisoners on staff and other inmates has increased in seven of the region’s nine prisons and young offenders’ institutes over the last 11 years.

The Northern Echo: powder keg

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Data obtained by the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers (POA) revealed a 25 per cent increase in assaults between 2000 and 2011, with the number of incidents rising from 685 to 855.

The POA blames the increase on pressure to cut costs within the Prison Service as the Government attempts to reduce the national deficit.

Glyn Travis, POA assistant secretary, said: “The POA is extremely concerned at the level of violence in North-East prisons.

“Staff are increasingly the subject of some horrific violent incidents, as are prisoners. We believe this is a direct result of the Government’s austerity measures and pressures to save money across the civil service.”

Mr Travis said cost-cutting was leading to overcrowding and an increase in the ratio of prisoners to staff, with prisoners now forced to spend more time behind bars and on unstructured activities when they had time to fashion lethal home-made weapons.

He said these factors were creating an explosive mix that could prompt the return of prison riots last seen in the 1990s.

“Prisoners are feeling unsafe and prisoners are feeling extremely volatile – it’s a powder keg and the Government is either going to light the fuse or realise that prisons are a valuable piece of society that need to be dealt with properly.

“We call on the Government to review their policies, and urge the police and Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute all offences of violence in prisons and not to dismiss them on the basis that it’s not in the public interest.”

Mr Travis said the seriousness of the violence and disorder now occurring in North-East prisons was just as alarming as the frequency.

In the last year, dozens of violent incidents have been recorded, including hostage situations, escape attempts, assaults on staff and arson attacks. HMP Frankland, in Durham, which houses some of the country’s most dangerous men, was a particular concern, said Mr Travis.

“Frankland is certainly an institution which the Government needs to look at,” he added.

“The prison handles some of the country’s most dangerous and violent people in society, and many of its prisoners feel they have nothing to lose.

“A lot of money has been spent on high-security prisons in recent years, but if you start to take that money away they are likely to become even more volatile.”

In April 2010, Peter Chapman, who is serving life for the murder of Darlington teenager Ashleigh Hall, was cut to the face in Frankland. Weeks before, Soham killer Ian Huntley had his throat slashed with a razor in the prison.

Separately, three prison officers were left injured after being attacked by convicted triple killer Kevan Thakrar who was wielding broken glass.

The following year, prisoner Mitchell Dean Harrison was attacked and reportedly disembowelled in his cell by another inmate.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We have a zero tolerance approach to violence in all our prisons.

"We have systems in place to deal with perpetrators quickly and robustly, with serious incidents referred to the police for prosecution."