'Lax' regime at open prison to be investigated

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Lax security at Ford Open Prison will be reviewed after claims that illegal alcohol fuelled a New Year's Eve riot causing £2m-worth of damage.

Yesterday, the Prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, confirmed that staffing levels at Ford would be the focus of an internal inquiry into the night-time disturbance, which occurred when only two prison officers and four support staff were on duty.

It is estimated that 40 of the total 500 inmates turned violent in the early hours after officers attempted to breathalyse them for contraband alcohol. The rioters set light to buildings during the night and again at lunchtime, causing extensive damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room, and snooker and pool rooms.

Ministers were warned 18 months ago about the security risks of drinking at the prison in a damning report into the West Sussex jail.

Mr Blunt, who spent two hours talking to staff and inmates at Ford prison near Arundel, said the Prison Service inquiry will need to consider whether the violence could be repeated.

The suitability of the inmates being held at Ford, as well as their access to alcohol, will also need to be examined in the wake of the violence which saw communal areas of the jail destroyed, Mr Blunt said. A separate police inquiry will look into whether any of the inmates will face criminal prosecution.

Asked if having just two trained officers and four support staff for the 496 prisoners was appropriate, Mr Blunt said: "It's obviously an issue that will be part of the inquiry and an issue around the policy of staffing levels at all open prisons. We need to remember that the incident was unprecedented."

However, in May 2009 the then chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that Ford Prison had a problem with security and staffing levels.

Inspectors who visited the prison two years ago found that alcohol abuse was common among prisoners and poor security meant that Ford was awash with other contraband. In one weekend alone, staff found that convicts had smuggled in 30 bottles of vodka.

The night before the inspectors arrived, two prisoners were described as "violently drunk" and had to be forcibly moved to a segregation unit.

Ms Owers said in her report that security problems at the jail, which was converted from a Fleet Air Arm station in 1960, meant that large finds of alcohol were common and prisoners were also smuggling in drugs and mobile phones.

Mark Freeman, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said alcohol had been a concern at the jail 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.

Mr Blunt also revealed that staffing was at the minimum level after one support officer called in sick at short notice and was not replaced. "When the night shift took over, there was certainly no indication or intelligence that anything untowards was happening," he said.

"I hope and expect there will be full co-operation by everyone in Ford prison to make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice."

The inquiry will also look at whether inappropriate prisoners have been sent to the open jail in an attempt to reduce numbers elsewhere.

"The issue was raised with me at all levels," Mr Blunt said.

But he denied that Government budget cuts played a role in the riot, saying the situation at Ford pre-dated October's spending review.

He added that the review will also look at whether recommendations made after inspectors identified alcohol being smuggled into the prison as a "significant problem" in 2009 were "adequately followed".