Disorder at Long Lartin raises fears about jails
MoJ concerned volatility has ‘entered new phase’ Alarm bells should ring, governors’ body warns
A disturbance at a “well-staffed” highsecurity prison has raised concern in the Ministry of Justice that volatility in the jail system has entered a new phase.
An official investigation began yesterday into the disturbance at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire, during which 81 prisoners, some of them armed with pool balls, forced staff to retreat from one wing.
The Prison Governors Association (PGA) said the incident should ring “alarm bells at the most senior level”. John Attard, a PGA national officer, said the trouble was symptomatic of cutbacks and changes in the prison service management structure.
The prisons minister, Sam Gyimah, answering an urgent Commons question, told MPs 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.
Gyimah insisted the disturbance was not the product of budget cuts. There was a full regime in place and no shortfall in staffing levels, and the trouble had been contained to one wing of the jail, he said.
He also appeared to contradict Michael Spurr, the head of the National Offender Management Service, in saying the government’s manifesto pledge to close dilapidated, ageing jails in England and Wales during this parliament still stood.
Spurr told prison governors on Wednesday that closures had been ruled out because of an unexpected surge in the 86,000-strong prison population this summer and the fact 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 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, the director of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), said Spurr had publicly admitted that another important 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 reopened,” he said.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has promised to invest more than £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 shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said the Long Lartin incident marked another low-point in the government’s prison policy. 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 facility was 46 officers short of its official benchmark staffing level of 551 officers.