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Blaze at open prison after inmates riot

An open prison was in flames today in a New Year's Day rampage by inmates thought to have been sparked by attempts to breathalyse them to check for contraband alcohol.

Windows were smashed and fires started in a number of buildings at Ford Prison near Arundel, West Sussex, in the early hours of this morning.

It has been claimed only two prison officers and four support staff were on duty at the time to manage a prison population of up to 200 inmates.

Throughout the day, authorities struggled to regain control of the situation.

Mark Freeman, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said alcohol had been a concern at the open prison for some time, with dozens of empty bottles found in recent days.

He added that prisoners turned violent after they refused to be breathalysed.

Mr Freeman likened recent attempts to test inmates for alcohol to "a scene out of Benny Hill", with officers chasing prisoners for days on end.

But thing turned violent overnight when guards suspected some prisoners of seeing in the new year with alcohol.

Mr Freeman said: "In the early hours staff tried to breathalyse a number of prisoners because they suspected they had been drinking which I think we can say with some certainty because of the amount of alcohol found over recent days and weeks.

"A total of 40 bottles of alcohol have been found empty.

"It's been a concern here for a long time about the amount of alcohol prisoners are able to get.

"When the prisoners refused to be breathalysed they became violent along with other prisoners and went on what we call a mutiny, this is a prison mutiny."

He added: "This has been a long time waiting to happen.

"Staff have been running around trying to breathalyse prisoners, it's been reminiscent of the end scenes of The Benny Hill Show, the only thing missing was the music."

It is thought that around 40 inmates took part in the rampage, with those from the prison's B wing taking the lead.

At around midnight, rioters wearing home-made balaclavas to hide their identities, began smashing windows and activating fire alarms.

They then started to set buildings alight.

Five blocks were set ablaze during the morning, with another three on fire by noon.

The buildings destroyed included a mail room, a gym, a snooker room and a pool room with 10 newly-installed pool tables.

Staff were forced to retreat as the violence increased, with riot police and specialist prison officers brought in, in an attempt to regain control.

Throughout the morning plumes of smoke could be seen above the open prison.

Firefighters eventually went in shortly after noon. Scores of prison officers in riot gear escorted two fire engines on to the site.

By 1pm, the authorities had regained control of one of the two wings.

A Prison Service spokesman said: "The fire brigade has been into the prison and the fires have been contained."

He added: "The causes of the disturbance and not yet known and will be subject to an investigation."

But Mr Freeman claimed insufficient staffing levels were partly to blame.

He said: "It's very difficult when you have a very small staff, which they did last night.

"In our view they do not have enough staff, the general policy is that prisons in an open state have less staff but we feel they should have more because they have more access to illegal activities.

"This is what happens when you have the mix of easily available alcohol and the wrong type of prisoner."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "No-one wins from a prison disturbance.

"It endangers prisoners and staff, worries families and ends in a high cost the Prison Service can ill afford.

"Once control is fully re-established, a review is called for to determine how and why this happened.

"Events of this kind are very rare in open prisons, which serve an important purpose to rehabilitate people who have served ever lengthening sentences."