Jail staff sickness hits all-time high

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RECORD LEVELS of sick leave among prison officers mean 90 per cent of jails in England and Wales are at risk of serious disruption by inmates, a report reveals today.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has found that prison staff took off an average of nearly three weeks a year through ill health in the last financial year, at a cost of pounds 56m to the taxpayer. At one women's prison, East Sutton Park, staff took an average of more than five weeks' sick leave - more than the average annual leave in the UK.

Prison Service officers took an average of 13.8 sick days a year, double the 6.4 days in privately run prisons. More than 40 per cent of prison governors said the absenteeism was affecting their ability to maintain a "safe environment". The committee found that sick leave left 116 of the 127 publicly run prisons with inadequate staff levels.

Absence rates varied hugely between different prisons, ranging from 2.5 days in one to 26.2 days in others. Six prisons, however, did not even bother to offer any statistics.

The discrepancies indicated "poor management practices, and possibly an acceptance of high levels of sickness absence, in the poorly performing prisons", the committee said.

There was also a wide difference between male and female absence rates, with women taking an average of 18 working days off sick compared with 13 days for men. Most of the absences were caused by stress and depression, though back injuries, colds and flu were also big factors.

More than 40 per cent of staff blamed harassment and bullying for their absence, a finding that has prompted the committee to order a separate investigation into the problem.