Backdown by prison officers after mass walkouts

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The Independent Online

Jailers appeared to back down last night from a full confrontation with the Prison Service after unlawful walk-outs were staged at 60 jails.

Jailers appeared to back down last night from a full confrontation with the Prison Service after unlawful walk-outs were staged at 60 jails.

The Prison Service threatened to take legal action if the Prison Officers' Association (POA) repeated its one-hour strikes. The action at 60 of the 137 jails in England and Wales and every jail in Scotland forced inmates to be locked in their cells and for visiting hours to be reduced.

The protests were over plans to market test the running of Brixton prison, south London. This follows several scathing reports about conditions. The union believes market testing will lead to the prison being privatised, warning that this would increase assaults on staff.

Officers held meetings outside jails across Britain which the POA described as a strike, even though industrial action is banned under the Criminal Justice Act. At Brixton 100 officers staged an "emergency union meeting" outside the jail, with a handful of police officers standing by.

Later yesterday Martin Narey, the Prison Service director general, held talks with the union at which he said market testing would go ahead. The union said there was a "frank exchange" of views but officials expressed satisfaction that the association will "hopefully" have an input into the market testing exercise.

Earlier, Mr Narey said he would seek a High Court injunction to halt more disruption. He also threatened not to recommend to the Home Office the establishment of an independent review body to arbitrate on pay rises.

Relations between the union and Government have worsened since the market testing announcement last month. Last week the POA withdrew goodwill from jails, prompting Paul Boateng, Prisons minister, to abandon an expected announcement aimed at improving industrial relations.

Mark Healy, the union's national chairman, said: "The damaging effects of market testing and privatisation are well documented. Privatesector assault rates for prison officers are twice the figure for the public sector.

"Prisoners have an even greater probability of being assaulted in private establishments."

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