Riot squad retakes prison after 19-hour rampage by inmates

Officers blame overcrowding for outbreak which leaves 75 per cent of Ashwell badly damaged
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The Independent Online

Specially trained riot-squad officers yesterday battled to gain control of Ashwell prison in Rutland after rioting inmates caused millions of pounds of damage to the building.

Prison officers had anticipated that trouble would continue into this morning, but said at 9.30pm yesterday that the jail had been secured, after some 19 hours of rioting. The flare-up could prove the “first of many” in a “summer of discontent” spreading through Britain’s prisons as a result of overcrowding, they warned.

Pete Chapple, national executive for the Prison Officers Association (POA), said 360 of Ashwell’s 600 inmates had been taken to other prisons. “There was about a hardcore of 60-odd ... who weren’t going to surrender, but they have been accounted for and put on vans,” he said. “We anticipated it would go on throughout the night but it has climaxed earlier than we thought.” Seventy-five per cent of the jail had been damaged, including four accommodation wings, the reception and the healthcare centre, he said.

Trouble erupted in the early hours yesterday. At one point a plume of black smoke from fires started in the prison could be seen clearly above it.

Inmates clashed with prison guards when one prisoner had his privileges downgraded on Friday. Prison sources said the disgruntled inmate spent most of that afternoon stirring up trouble and the riot began at about midnight. Because Ashwell is a Category C prison – housing supposedly low-risk prisoners – its inmates have open access to the grounds and buildings and the riot quickly spread. Only seven or eight prison officers were on duty overnight, according to prison sources, and were unable to stop the trouble.

Prisoners remained in control of the building for several hours as the prison riot-squad officers moved in to confront what the Ministry of Justice described as “concerted indiscipline”.

Glyn Travis, POA assistant general secretary, said 200 to 300 prisoners were involved in the initial rioting: “They targeted key areas ... gaining access to ladders, oil and tools. They also accessed drugs from the medical centre which inspired them to do various acts.”

Mr Travis added that, due to overcrowding, the Government was reclassifying more-dangerous Category B prisoners as C, and that about 60 per cent of Ashwell inmates were really Category B, held in a regime unsuited to the greater discipline they need. “They are reclassifying Cat B prisoners as Cat C,” he said. “It’s a misguided policy and unfortunately it’s now gone sadly wrong. There’s a drive to save half a billion pounds in the prison service over two years. You can’t keep asking for more for less and Ashwell is likely to be the first of many .... If we do have a hot summer, the heat breeds unrest and we may well see a summer of discontent in the UK.”

Colin Moses, the national chairman of the POA, has called for a root-and- branch review of the prisoner classification system. Britain’s prison population has increased from 60,000 in 1997 to a record 83,000.

Edward Garnier, Conservative MP for Harborough, south-east Leicestershire, and a shadow justice minister, said: “Prisons are woefully overcrowded and there has been a problem with unsuitable people being sent to other prisons. Everything is being pushed down the toothpaste tube.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said Ashwell was not overcrowded, and only housed Category C prisoners. “Prisoners are categorised according to risk and held in the most appropriate location after a thorough assessment. It is simply untrue that HMP Ashwell is holding any Category B prisoners.”