Prisoners burn jail in 'breathalyser riot'

Unions blame staff shortages caused by cutbacks after dozens of 'alcohol-fuelled' inmates torch accommodation blocks

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The Independent Online

An official inquiry was under way last night after prisoners went on the rampage and torched buildings in a New Year's Day mutiny sparked by an attempted clampdown on contraband alcohol.

Several prison buildings were burned to the ground at Ford open prison, near Arundel, West Sussex, causing millions of pounds of damage. The violence started as the New Year began, and it was 22 hours before prison officials were able to announce it had ended.

Unions claimed last night that at the time only two prison officers and four support staff were on duty, to control almost 500 inmates. The Prison Officers Association (POA) blamed staff shortages caused by cutbacks for the debacle at the Category D prison. The former naval airbase has been criticised in the past for its high rate of absconding prisoners.

But Michael Spurr, the chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said: "Staffing levels at the prison at the time the incident began were risk assessed and considered appropriate and usual for an open establishment such as Ford."

He praised staff for ensuring there were no significant injuries and added: "A high level investigation will commence immediately to ascertain the causes and circumstances surrounding the incident and those involved may be liable to criminal charges."

The Prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, said 100 inmates were being moved to closed conditions either because they were involved in the disturbances or because of damage to their accommodation. Six accommodation blocks, a gymnasium, a mail room, a snooker room and a pool room were destroyed.

Mr Blunt warned witnesses they would be required to provide "full and frank" accounts of what they had seen if they wanted to remain in an open prison. "This is an extremely unusual event in an open prison, because prisoners have a great deal to lose and they are, certainly as far as any influence I can bring to bear, going to lose it," he said, adding that a formal inquiry will be led by the regional custody manager for Wales.

Mark Freeman of the POA blamed a lack of staff for "farcical" attempts to get prisoners to take breath tests for alcohol in the days leading up to New Year. "Over the past few nights, prisoners have been reluctant to be breathalysed. The staff have been chasing them round the blocks trying to breathalyse them, which is sort of reminiscent of the end scene from Benny Hill."

Although inmates are banned from drinking alcohol, Colin Moses, the POA's national chairman, said bottles are smuggled into the open jail. The scaling back of searches in lower category jails means prisoners can bring in alcohol when returning after a day's work, or brew it themselves, he said. Officers are said to have found dozens of empty bottles over the festive season.

Up to 40 prisoners were involved in yesterday's violence and the Prison Service had to draft in 140 specialist riot officers to regain control of the two wings that inmates occupied. The perpetrators wore balaclavas, making them difficult to identify.

Mr Moses added: "What we have seen is alcohol-fuelled violence and a shortage of staff to deal with it. HMP Ford can be a successful prison when we have the correct staff and resources in place to carry out searches and checks. There have been redundancies across the service. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has been talking about putting fewer people in prison. Prisons would be more successful if there were not cutbacks in staff and resources. These prisoners are meant to be the best we've got."

John Roberts, the operations director of the prisoners' newspaper, Inside Time, said there was a severe problem with both drugs and alcohol in open prisons. "Some prisoners who have had problems with drugs and alcohol in the past do not want to go to open prisons where there is more likely to be alcohol and drugs."

The blaze was initially confined to an accommodation block, but at around midday yesterday further fires broke out elsewhere, requiring fire-fighters to return to the scene. It took until 4pm for officers to regain control of the jail.

Nick Gibb, the Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, said: "This is an open prison in rural Sussex countryside and it is unacceptable that this should be allowed to escalate to the level that it has."

Ford old boys

George Best

Three-month prison sentence for drunk-driving, assaulting an officer and failing to answer bail. Incarcerated over Christmas 1984; played for the prison football team.

Lord Brocket

Jailed for five years in 1996 for £4.5m worth of insurance fraud, after falsely claiming that four vintage cars were stolen from his estate. He was moved to Ford after he was stabbed in a knife attack at a semi-secure prison in Bedfordshire.

Gerald Ronson

One of the "Guinness Four", jailed in 1990 after being found guilty of involvement in a conspiracy to inflate the price of Guinness shares during a 1986 takeover battle for the company Distillers. Two of the other members, Ernest Saunders and Anthony Parnes, also served time in the prison.

Darius Guppy

Guppy was the best man at the wedding of Earl Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana. He was convicted of a £1.8m insurance fraud in 1993, after staging the robbery of precious gems in a New York hotel and then claiming the money from insurer Lloyd's.

David Shayler

Shayler spent six months at Ford in 2002, for breaching the Official Secrets Act. The former MI5 officer leaked details of phone taps to The Mail on Sunday in 1997. He was paid £40,000, for files on Libyan links to the IRA and Soviet funding of the Communist Party of Great Britain.