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Prison officers end protest over health and safety concerns

Prison officers returned to work last week after a High Court injunction ordered them to end a 24-hour protest.  Up to 10,000 prison officers in England and Wales stopped work over claims of a “surge in violence” in jails.

Granting the injunction, Mr Justice Kerr said prison officers' action had created a “very concerning” situation.

The Prison Officers Association said it had achieved its aim of securing a meeting with Justice Secretary Liz Truss.

It is illegal for officers to strike, but the POA had directed its members to stop working after talks with the government over health and safety concerns broke down.

The Ministry of Justice said it welcomed the decision to stop the “unlawful industrial action”.

A spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving safety across the prison estate and are already taking action to deal with this.”

In court last week, Mr Justice Kerr said there was evidence 80% of staff had taken some sort of action in most prisons. “A number of incidents have occurred in prisons [today] and the situation is very concerning indeed,” he said.

The POA's lawyer cited a series of incidents he said had occurred in the last two weeks, including 30 assaults by inmates on officers, 14 hostage situations and 13 absconds, attempted escapes or escapes.

But the government's lawyers accused the POA of “seeking to take over the control of jails from governors and run them on a controlled lock-down basis”.

Daniel Stilitz QC, for the Ministry of Justice, commented that the “danger” was “ramping up” with “each hour that goes by with the prisons unmanned”.

The protests affected prisoner transport and brought an unknown number of court cases to a standstill, including that of Thomas Mair, who is accused of murdering MP Jo Cox.

Six prison governors had also been due to give evidence to a Commons justice committee on Tuesday morning but, because of the action, the hearing was postponed.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Truss said prison officers did a “tough and difficult job”, but the POA had failed to respond to government proposals to tackle their concerns.

“The union's position is unnecessary and unlawful and it will make the situation in our prisons more dangerous,” she told MPs.

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said the events were the “clearest sign yet of... a crisis” in prisons and the government had “lost control”.

The POA says “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 union's national chairman, Mike Rolfe, said members did not take the action lightly, but the service was “in meltdown” and things had to change “before any more lives are lost or blood is shed”.

The Prison Governors Association said it recognised the “extremely tough conditions” faced by officers, but it would not condone the action and the “significant additional risk this places all staff and prisoners under”.

It said it had held meetings with Ms Truss and was “convinced that safety and decency was at the top of her agenda”.

Earlier this month, she unveiled a White Paper detailing £1.3bn investment in new prisons over the next five years, including plans for 2,100 extra prison officers, drug tests for inmates on entry and exit from prisons, and more autonomy for governors.

BBC News
November 2016