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Issue #1758      November 23, 2016

“Losing control” of prisons

BRITAIN: The government was accused of “losing control” of prisons last week after having to resort to a High Court injunction to get staff back to work from picket lines mounted over safety. Prison Officers Association (POA) general secretary Steve Gillan warned that the “volatile and dangerous state of prisons” mean that staff are no longer safe.

An estimated 10,000 staff are believed to have taken part in the action with protests at jails across the country. Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said the action was the “clearest sign yet” of a crisis, saying the government has “lost control.”

In an urgent Commons question he said there were 6,000 fewer officers on the front line than in 2010, and accused Justice Secretary Liz Truss of being “in denial.”

“The Justice Secretary needs to reassure the public and staff immediately that prisons are safe places to work,” he said. Ms Truss told MPs that the POA action was “unnecessary and unlawful.” She said that talks had been due to continue but that instead “the POA failed to respond to our proposals and called this unlawful action without giving any notice.”

The Ministry of Justice won a High Court injunction, with government lawyers accusing the POA of trying to impose “its own limited regime” against the wishes of prison bosses.

The Jo Cox murder trial was among those brought to a halt by the protests. Suspect Thomas Mair was due to appear at the Old Bailey but he was not in the dock as staff at Belmarsh Prison were among those that joined the action.

The protests come after a series of incidents including a riot at Bedford Prison, where 200 inmates went on the rampage earlier this month.

A statement from the POA national executive committee said that it was “with regret” that they had been “forced to direct all POA members to take protest action” following the latest offer from government negotiators to address health and safety concerns.

“Chronic staff shortages and impoverished regimes have resulted in staff no longer being safe, a lack of discipline and prisoners taking control of areas,” the statement read.

The union says that protests took place at most jails across the country, with a reported 80 per cent of staff taking part. Prison vans backed up outside HMP Manchester with no staff to process prisoners. Manchester POA committee member Derek Stanton, who has worked in the prison service for 28 years, claimed the situation is the “most dangerous I have ever seen it.” He said that assaults on staff have increased 48 per cent in the last year.

And shadow chancellor John McDonnell joined calls for urgent action.

“We repeatedly warned the government of the consequences of their job cuts and the pressures prison officers are under,” he said. “Now urgent action is needed to address the appalling problems POA members are facing. The government needs to get back round the negotiating table to ensure our prisons are safe.”

The POA is seeking urgent talks with the government to resolve the dispute.

Morning Star

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