A fall of 30 per cent in the number of prison officers working in jails across the North East has prompted fears the service is near “breaking point”.
New figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform show there were 1,450 officer grade staff working in the region’s prisons in September 2013, compared with 2,062 in September 2010.
A drop in officer numbers nationwide has coincided with a deepening prison overcrowding crisis and an alarming rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody.
There had been plans to cut 200 jobs at the prison, which houses over 1,300 inmates and unions claimed the move would leave the jail unsafe.
HMP Northumberland was formed by the merger of Castington and Acklington jails in 2011, but the prison building was built 40 years ago. It’s a Category C jail for inmates including vulnerable sex offenders.
The prison has seen officer numbers fall from 441 to 270 - a drop of 39 per cent - between 2010 and 2013.
At the end of last year, Durham Prison, which has seen officer number fall form 311 to 190, was named and shamed as one of the worst jails in the country for overcrowding.
The prison was criticised due to inmates having to share cells designed for fewer offenders.
In February this year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling bowed to pressure by asking an independent advisory panel to probe all recent “self-inflicted deaths of 18 to 24-year-olds” in custody, including two deaths at Durham Prison.
According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, since May 2010, 18 jails in England and Wales have closed or re-roled with the loss of almost 6,500 places, which means that the increasing prison population is crammed into a diminishing number of establishments.
As of July 8 this year, at least 43 people had committed suicide in prisons in England and Wales – a 30 per cent rise on the same point last year, when there had been 33 suicides.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The prison system is at breaking point. Everyone should be concerned at the crisis in prisons as when people come out of jail they are more likely to inflict more crime on us.
“Ministers and various MPs have used different figures to try to minimise the impact of prison closures, but the statistics in this report show the true picture.”
A spokesman for the Prison Officers’ Association added: “The POA has raised concerns over the link between staff reductions and the increased level of violence, self inflicted injuries, deaths, poor regimes and acts of indiscipline, in our prisons but saving money is the priority of the Ministry of Justice and Treasury.
“The POA welcome the report and findings and call on the Minister to act quickly to ensure prisons are safe secure and fit for purpose and not warehouses which is the reality under the current regime.”
Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright today dismissed the regional figures as “flawed and inaccurate”.
He said: “These figures present a misleading picture of the prison estate. Our approach to staffing levels has been agreed with the unions to ensure we run safe, efficient and decent prisons with prison officers back in frontline roles where they are most needed.
“Where there are local staffing issues we are taking action to resolve this, including a widespread recruitment campaign and the creation of a reserve force of officers who can be used nationally when required.”
Change in prison officer numbers between September 2010 to September 2013