Mark Fairhurst, Chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, told Express.co.uk his members are now having to work in conditions that are “not safe” and due to cuts they have to simply watch while prisoners are handed drugs via drones from people on the outside.
The prison chief claimed officers lack the necessary equipment to appropriately defend themselves in the event of a violent outbreak.
He said: “It’s not safe. It’s certainly the most violent place in Europe.
“We haven’t got the protective measures in place to equip our staff.
“For example, what we have in the majority of prisons is an extendable button.
“We’ve tried to badger the Government to issue Pava and although they’re trailing it in prisons there’s no decision been made yet on whether they will roll it out nationally.
“But we are not taking no for an answer when it comes to Pava.
“It’s a good protective measure and it de-escalates violence, so we’re going to insist that Pava is rolled out.”
Prisons: Mark Fairhurst claims prisons in England and Wales are the ‘most violent place in Europe’
Figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in July showed self-harm incidents and assaults in jails were at record levels, while the discovery of illegal drugs and banned mobile phones increased by 23 percent and 15 percent respectively in the year to March.
The MoJ report showed an increase of 26 percent in assaults on prison officers in the last year – with 9000 assaults recorded – and an 11 percent increase of prisoners harming themselves.
Pava is an incapacitant spray that was trialled in four prisons in 2017 to help officers avoid serious injury in scuffles with inmates.
The liquid spray contains a chemical that mimics the heat effect of chilly peppers.
Symptoms subside in 45minutes, giving prison officers plenty of time to call for reinforcements to come to the rescue.
An MoJ report attributed the increase of violence on the amount of new psychoactive substances making it into prisons.
But Mr Fairhurst dismissed the claims drugs are the only thing to blame for the increase of violence.
Would you want your grandparents rolling over the floor with a 21-year-old late into their 60s?
Leading prison officers claimed overcrowding caused by relentless austerity measures implemented by UK governments since 2010 is the primary reason violence in prisons continues to rise.
The MoJ report showed 56 percent of prisons in the UK are overcrowded.
Mr Fairhurst said: “We’ve been saying for years to the Government you need to reduce overcrowding.
“And they had a perfect opportunity to do so at the new super prison in Wrexham, HMP Berwyn which can hold over 2100 prisoners.
“They had an opportunity there to make those cells single cells, but unfortunately now 70 percent of those cells are housing two prisoners when they could have made every cell a single cell.
“And they’ve closed over 20 prisons since 2010. So if you’re serious about overcrowding as a Government, you’d keep every prison open, open new ones and reduce that overcrowding over time.
“But they’re obviously not serious or not bothered about overcrowding. It certainly adds to prisoners’ frustration and levels of violence.”
The POA leader added: “We’ve always had drugs in prisons for decades. It used to be cannabis and cocaine, then it was the synthetic drugs, the psychoactive substances.
“They’ve always been around. The main reason for the violence is the severe cuts we faced since 2010.
Prisons: Prison officers attempting to contain a violent prisoner
“We’ve lost over 7000 frontline prisoner posts and there is a correlation between the lack of staff on the line to supervise and monitor prisoners and the rise in violence.
“So this blame lies at the door of the Government through their austerity model of cutting too much and too fast and losing a lot of experience.”
Mr Fairhurst accepted, however, that new psychoactive drugs have indeed been playing a part in the increase of violent outbreaks in prisons.
The POA Chair explained prisoners continue to come up with a number of “ingenious ways” to smuggle and hand out drugs behind bars.
But once again, he condemned the Government’s cuts for the lack of resources given to prison officers to tackle the issue.
He said: “What usually happens is a drone will hover above a cell window and the prisoner can simply put his hand out at that open window and secrete the drugs.
“When prison officers see this happening on camera, nine times out of ten there is not enough of them to enter that cell to search the cell and try to get those drugs back.
“We simply haven’t got the resources to do it.”
Prisons: A prisoner reaches out his cell window to obtain drugs from a drone
Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, argued against Mr Fairhurst’s call to open more prisons to tackle overcrowding, but attributed the failures of the past Governments to the increasing problem nonetheless.
Mr Dawson argued the root of the problem lies within the sentencing system, claiming longer sentences have effectively resulted in more prisoners remaining behind bars despite a decline in crime over the last 30 years.
He said: “Our view is that we have too many prisoners. Governments for the last 30 years at least have tried to solve this problem by building more prisons.
“They spend a huge amount of money on building prisons but they never caught up with the demand.
“So the best indicator of whether you have the right number of prison spaces for prisoners is the level of overcrowding, the percentage of prisoners who share a cell that was designed for one person and has two or more people in it.
“That percentage has stayed almost unchanged at 25 percent. Whether when we’ve had 45000 people in prisons or 80000 as we now have.
“And what that shows is that no Government is actually prepared to spend the money that we would need to spend to keep ahead of demand.
Prisons: Prisoners handing out drugs to other inmates
“The reasons that we have so many people in prisons is that people are spending much longer in prison than they used to.
“So actually fewer people are going to prison. Crime has fallen and the number of people going to prison has fallen with it.
“But they go to prison for very much longer. That’s something that Governments have done, Parliament has legislated for much longer sentences.
“And until we’re prepared to grip that issue, prisons will be overcrowded and Mark’s members will be swimming against the tide.”
But last month, both Houses of Parliament voted in favour of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill which will create a new offence of assault against an emergency worker, including prison officers, in the exercise of their functions with a penalty that is increased from six months to 12 months.
The Bill also creates a statutory aggravating factor. This means that when a person is convicted of a range of offences including ABH, GBH and manslaughter, the judge must consider the fact that the offence was committed against an emergency worker as an aggravating factor meriting an increase in the sentence within the maximum allowed for the particular offence.
To make things worse, prison officers are now required to stay on the job until the shocking age of 68.
Although classed as a uniform service, prison officers are no longer allowed to retire at the age of 60 like police officers or firefighters.
Prisons: Prisoners fighting in prison
Mr Fairhurst branded the 2016 change in the law unacceptable arguing it was just another display of lack of sympathy by the Government towards prison officers.
He said: “The biggest concern is we used to have a retirement age of 60 and that’s been taken off us. We’re now expected to work in that hostile environment until the age of 68.
“Would you want your grandparents rolling over the floor with a 21-year-old late into their 60s?
“We need that retirement age back. We are classed as a uniform service.
“And Rory Stewart has announced and confirmed in Parliament that we are an emergency service. So treat us like one.
“Treat us like the police, treat us like the fire services. Give us our retirement age back.”
He added: “We want to see a bit more empathy for staff and we want to see staff cared for when they receive assaults or injuries.
“Or when they respond to riots and receive injuries. We want the employer to look after them.
“Instead they decide after a few months that they want to sack them because they’re not at work.”
Last month, Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, said he would resign if the number of assaults does not fall in ten jails that are to be subjected to a fresh crackdown on drugs and violence.
Mr Stewart, who has been prisons minister since January, announced a £10 million package of measures designed to lift standards at the ten jails selected, which have “acute” problems.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I will quit if I haven’t succeeded in 12 months in reducing the level of drugs and violence in those prisons.
“I want to make a measurable difference. That’s what this investment is around. I believe in the prison service, I believe in our prison officers. I believe that this can be turned around and I want you to judge me on those results and I will resign if I don’t succeed.”
He added on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’d expect to be judged on assaults. At the moment we’re measuring every month how many times a prisoner assaults another prisoner or a prisoner assaults a prison officer and in these ten prisons, in particular, violence is a real problem. The fundamental thing I’d like to do and be judged on over the next 12 months is reducing that violence, reducing the number of assaults.”
Mr Stewart agreed the fall would have to be in the region of 10 percent to 25 percent in order for him to stay in his job.
The ten prisons selected for the programme are Hull, Humber, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham, Ranby, Isis and Wormwood Scrubs.
In response to the above accusations, a Prison Service spokesperson said: “Assaults on our hardworking staff will never be tolerated. We will always push for the strongest punishment and are changing the law so that offenders who attack prison officers face even longer behind bars.
“We are ensuring prison officers have the tools they need to do the job safely by rolling out body-worn cameras, ‘police-style’ handcuffs and restraints, and trialling PAVA incapacitant spray.
“Drugs have no place in our prisons and we are investing £14 million each year to stop the criminal gangs responsible for the illicit drugs trade. We’re also ploughing £30 million into prison security, building on our roll-out of body scanners, sniffer dogs and phone-blocking technology.
“Prison officer numbers are at their highest level since 2013 and we have increased pay 2.75% this year, on top of a 1.7% average increase last year. We passed our target to recruit an additional 2,500 prison officers by the end of 2018, seven months early. There has been a net increase of 3,653 officers since the 2,500 target was announced.”
Justice Secretary David Gauke also announced that the MoJ will be working with the prison service, police and CPS to update the Crime in Prisons Protocol to enhance the response to crime behind bars.
New training for prison staff, due to be rolled out by Autumn, will focus on crime scene preservation to make sure investigators and prosecutors have the evidence they need to pursue offenders wherever possible.