Ministers had not seen a report warning about staffing concerns at an open prison before rampaging inmates torched buildings in a new year prison riot, a spokesman for Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has said.
The spokesman refuted claims that ministers were warned about staffing concerns at Ford Open Prison near Arundel, West Sussex, just weeks before the riots.
He said the Independent Monitoring Board report was received by Prison Service officials on December 16 but was still being assessed and had not reached ministers before the riots took place on New Year’s Eve.
The report had warned about night staffing and said: “Whilst there have only been minor incidents in the last year we do not consider that proper control is being exercised at night and are sceptical of the response received in the past that it must be adequate because there has not been a serious incident yet.”
About 40 offenders took control of the prison, smashing windows and setting fire to buildings and it is thought the violence started after guards attempted to breathalyse inmates for contraband alcohol in the early hours of New Year’s Day. During the early stages of the rebellion, just two officers and four support staff were on duty at the centre, which holds around 500 inmates. The guards were forced to retreat as the violence increased. Scores of riot police and specialist prison officers were brought in before authorities eventually regained control. Rioters caused extensive damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms.
The IMB reports notes that in the past three years since the introduction of a dog handler with two dogs, a large amount of contraband has been discovered including 360 mobile phones, 323 chargers, 115 SIM cards, £1,221 of cash, 200 items of drug paraphernalia, 11 parcels and 51 litres of alcohol.
The 2009-10 annual report states: “We are delighted to hear that the dogs have been put up for a national award. However, we believe that more use could be made of them if there were more staff available to support the searches.” But it makes clear that “drugs, alcohol, mobile telephones and other illicit substances continue to find their way into the prison”.
Earlier this week, Mr Clarke told the Commons lessons must be learned about what happened at Ford. The National Offender Management Service is carrying out an investigation.
Mr Clarke said: “As far as I am aware the prison was staffed at its normal level, we had made no changes since we took office and the arrangements under the previous Government. I don’t think we should start leaping to conclusions about whether there was anything that was at the heart of this apart from the appallingly bad behaviour of people who had been acquiring alcohol in the run up to New Year’s Eve.”
The publication of the report comes after Mr Clarke announced three prisons will be closed with the loss of almost 850 places. Ashwell prison in Rutland and Lancaster Castle, Lancashire, will be closed by March and a third jail, Morton Hall women’s prison in Lincolnshire, will be turned into an immigration detention centre.