Staff shortages making prison crisis even worse

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The Independent Online

One third of prisons in England and Wales are suffering a staffing crisis, aggravating their problems in dealing with soaring numbers of inmates.

Forty-five of the 138 jails reported that at least 5 per cent of prison officer posts were vacant, more than double the number just two years ago. Seventeen - including high- security Belmarsh prison, south London - are more than 10 per cent understrength.

Most jails with staff problems are in the South, suggesting potential recruits are deterred by the high cost of living and expensive housing, research for the Prison Reform Trust revealed today.

Female prisons were also suffering particularly acute staff shortages - Holloway in north London had 41 posts (16 per cent) unfilled, while Cookham Wood in Kent and Bullwood Hall in Essex both had a shortfall of 18 per cent.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Prisons stand or fall by the people who manage and work in them. Prison staff are key public-sector workers and right now they are under intolerable pressure. Large local prisons are operating like giant transit camps with prisoners constantly on the move from one overcrowded jail to another. Severe staff shortages, appalling sickness levels, ever-changing governors and record prison numbers is more like a recipe for disaster than a way of ensuring public safety. To avert a crisis, Government must act to reduce prison overcrowding, stabilise management and find and keep good local staff."

Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, pointed last week to understaffing as a crucial contributory factor to the failure to provide basic standards of decency at Wandsworth Prison, south London.

More than 17 days were lost per officer through sickness last year - a rise from 13.9 days the year before.