PRISON organisations have warned a crisis in UK jails is a “powder keg” waiting to go off, as staff from the region’s prisons are sent hundreds of miles away to meet shortages.
The Northern Echo has learnt staff from HMP Durham and Holme House in Stockton, Deerbolt Young Offenders Institution near Barnard Castle and staff from the now closed HMP Northallerton have been sent to work in prisons including Manchester, Onley, Moorland and Lindholme near Doncaster, to make up shortages.
One person, who has a family member who has been transferred to work in another prison outside the region, and did not wish to be identified, said although many staff had gone on detached duty voluntarily, others were “unhappy about going”.
She said many were concerned the situation inside some prisons was becoming critical.
She told The Northern Echo: “Staff that have already done their detached duty are concerned that the prisons are very unsettled and they feel things will go up at any time with rioting. Inmates are not getting to things like the gym or other activities because the prisons are so short staffed and over-crowded,” she said.
“Prisoners are becoming agitated and lashing out, smashing up cells, causing serious damage.”
She added: “People are expressing concern for the staff being sent away. Staff assaults have gone up. There were four in a ten day period at one prison recently. Make-shift weapons are being found on prisoners as many are becoming fearful of other prisoners.
“It will not be long before either an officer is killed or we have another incident like at Strangeways in 1990.”
The news has come as the Howard League for Penal Reform released statistics that showed prison suicide and homicide rates last year experienced a sharp rise to the highest level in 15 years.
The organisation claimed the statistics suggested the prison service was no longer able to deliver its duty of care to prisoners.
HMP Holme House in Stockton had the second highest number in the country with eight deaths; five of which were categorised as “natural”, two as suicides and one “not classified”. Durham Prison had four deaths and Frankland three.
The Howard League’s Professor David Wilson, a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University and former prison governor, said: “This is the highest number of alleged murders since 1998 and it reflects deep structural problems about control and order inside our jails – not our most high-security jails, but every prison in which we currently lock people up.
“The prison service has a duty of care to prisoners that this murder rate suggests it cannot deliver.”
Glyn Travis, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) says the current system in UK jails was in “complete meltdown” with not enough prison officers to deal with the number of inmates currently held.
Mr Travis said after a seasonal drop in prisoner numbers in UK jails over Christmas, levels were now rising week on week. He said he believed a planned recruitment drive by the Ministry of Justice would take a “considerable time” to get enough fully operational officers back in the system.
He said: “The government had a recruitment freeze for over two years, then a voluntary redundancy package to try and save money without any thought to actual staffing requirements. So now we have a system in complete meltdown.”
Mr Travis added: “The pressure on the system is intense and we have got real concerns that staff will suffer burnout because you cannot keep asking people to work and work and work.
“It’s a powder keg just waiting to go off and it needs to be managed.”
A Prison Service spokesperson said it was “not true” staff were being put at risk.
She said: "A small number of staff, including those from prisons in the North-East, are working at other establishments for short periods on a temporary basis while we re-assess staffing at prisons across England and Wales to increase efficiency.
“It is not true to say that staff are being put at any additional risk - considerable effort has been invested in ensuring that staff are safe and not disproportionately disadvantaged by working away from home.”
Last year, The Northern Echo revealed how staff from Northallerton Prison were being put up in hotels to look after the same inmates they had been looking after in Northallerton before it closed.
The prison was closed within eight weeks as part of a package of measures designed to modernise prisons and bring down costs.