Prison chiefs are urgently seeking a high court injunction to force thousands of prison officers back to work amid a 24-hour protest over the soaring level of violence at jails in England and Wales.
The disruption has meant that several trials have been halted, including that of Thomas Mair, the man accused of the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. The jury was sent home from the Old Bailey after being told he could not be brought to court from Belmarsh prison in south London.
Though emergency cover is being provided, the action by the Prison Officers’ Association at every jail in England and Wales means prisoners are not being unlocked from their cells – a situation described as “dangerous” by the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, Michael Spurr.
Spurr said the prison officers’ protest amounted to a strike, which the POA is banned from taking by law. The Ministry of Justice is to ask the courts to ban the 24-hour protest action.
“We will be seeking relief from the courts later today … Rather than talk to us the prison officers have taken protest action, which by any other means would be classed as industrial action. They are not working. Prisoners are not being unlocked and that is a dangerous situation,” he said.
The union’s instructions to its members asks them to stage protest action outside their jails for 24 hours until midnight on Tuesday. Emergency cover will be negotiated at each prison to deal with fires, incidents of self-harm, issuing essential medication to prisoners, hospital bedwatches and maintaining unit patrols. Each POA branch is asked to negotiate on a jail-by-jail basis on an action plan to establish minimum safety levels at that jail.
The protests also led to the cancellation of a Commons justice select committee hearing during which MPs were to hear evidence from prison governors on the government’s safety and reform programme outlined by the justice secretary, Elizabeth Truss, two weeks ago.
The POA said it had consistently raised the “volatile and dangerous state of prisons, as chronic staff shortages and impoverished regimes has resulted in staff no longer being safe a lack of discipline and prisoners taking control of areas”.
The statement from its national executive said the continued surge in violence and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self-harm, coupled with recent murder and escapes showed that the system was in meltdown.
Dave Todd, the POA south-east representative, who was outside Pentonville prison in London, where there was recent jailbreak, said conditions in jails were “volatile and dangerous”.
“We need to act to protect ourselves,. It has not come about quickly, it’s a build-up over probably years actually. It’s just unsafe. To me, prison officers taking this type of action speaks volumes for what’s happening inside,” he said.
Todd, a former soldier, added: “I served in Northern Ireland and I felt more vulnerable walking the landings in prisons than I did on the streets of Northern Ireland.”
The MoJ said there was no justification for the action: “We have been engaged in constructive talks with the POA over the last two weeks and have provided a comprehensive response to a range of health and safety concerns.
“The government has announced an additional 2,500 frontline officers to help reduce violence in prisons. We have well-established contingencies in place to manage prisons and keep the public safe, but we are clear that this constitutes unlawful industrial action, and we will seek remedy in the courts.”