High-security jails holding some of Britain's most dangerous criminals have been hit by serious staff shortages. The Prison Service faces deepening recruitment and funding problems, with new figures showing more prison officers were leaving the force than joining it.
The figures showed that Belmarsh prison in south-east London, home to the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, had 49 vacancies. Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire, scene of an armed escape attempt in 1994 by IRA inmates, was 52 officers under-strength. Frankland, near Durham, where the multiple murderer Dr Harold Shipman was originally jailed, was short of 30 officers.
The figures were revealed in a parliamentary written answer from Paul Goggins, the Prisons minister. He said they were a snapshot on 30 June and did not take into account staff still being recruited.
But the Prison Reform Trust claimed the shortages - combined with high sickness levels among officers and overcrowding - were "more like a recipe for disaster than a way of ensuring public safety". A spokesman, Enver Solomon, said: "Action must be taken to stabilise management, find and keep good local staff and reduce prison numbers by making more use of effective community programmes for low-risk offenders."
Duncan Keys, the assistant secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said: "It's not healthy for staff, it's not healthy for prisoners and it's not healthy for the security of the establishment.Tired prison officers aren't vigilant prison officers." Other figures obtained by The Independent revealed that 2,245 officers were recruited, and 3,647 left the service, between 2000 and 2003. In that time, 1,390 recruits left the service within two years of signing up, a drop-out rate of 60 per cent.
The struggle to recruit and retain staff coincides with a steady rise in the prison population, which now stands at a record 74,389, a rise of 1,680 in a year. The total is expected to reach 91,200 by 2006.
A further 1,420 places are being opened at seven jails next year, and new prisons will open at Ashford, Middlesex, and Peterborough in 2005.
The financial pressures facing the service were underlined last week when Phil Wheatley, its director-general, called for staff to make savings of £15m this year.
Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of Napo, the probation union, said prisons and the probation service faced "monumental" staffing and funding problems.
"The case for additional funding [to pay] for community penalties for those serving short sentences is overwhelming. But in the absence of any Treasury support, a moratorium on prison-building seems essential to free the necessary funds."
The long-awaited report by the Government trouble-shooter, Patrick Carter, into the structure of the prison and probation services has been delivered to the Home Office. It is understood to have concluded that they should be merged more closely.