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POA chair says government should do more to reduce violence to prison officers

The Justice Secretary has hit out at an “irresponsible” walkout by prison officers over safety concerns on Friday, warning that the decision to strike was “wrong” and did “nothing” to solve soaring rates of violence among inmates.

David Gauke said the decision by the Prison Officers Association to order the strike had created an unacceptable situation in which some prisoners faced being locked up for 24 hours, which he claimed would only fuel tensions.

It came after thousands of prisons officers across the country were asked to leave their stations and join demonstrations outside prisons “until instructed otherwise”, in a move described by ministers as “unlawful” and dangerous.

Whilst the demonstrations were called off by 1pm, following talks with the Government, the disruption also resulted in a number of convicts missing court hearings, as they were unable to be transported.

Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, the Honorary Recorder of Sheffield, said he was “profoundly disappointed” that the strikes had forced him to abandon an important sentencing case involving a gang accused of selling drugs and firearms.

Hitting out at the POA, Mr Gauke said that whilst he agreed that levels of violence in prisons remained “unacceptably high”, the decision to strike “doesn’t help address it”.

His comments were echoed by Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, who said by failing to turn up to work “these prison officers are putting their fellow staff and inmates at risk”.

The union, which represents 20,000 officers across England and Wales, will now meet with the prison service on Monday, it is understood, after the Government withdrew the threat of an injunction.

The strike action was called a day after the publication of a damning report into conditions at HMP Bedford, which warned of the potential of a “complete breakdown” of order and “dangerous lack of control”.

Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, said in his report that inmates had effectively taken control at the violent, overcrowded and vermin-infested jail.

His warning, known as an urgent notification, is the fourth to be issued by the Government in 12 months, following similar warnings at prisons in Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham.

Defending the move yesterday, Steve Gillan, the union’s general secretary, said it had been necessary to “bring attention…]about conditions in our prisoners and my members, of the rise in violence, the rise in drugs, the self-harm and everything that goes with it.”

Mr Gillan also hit back at Mr Gauke’s claims, warning that the Justice Secretary risked “inflaming” tensions despite acknowledging that the union’s concerns were “justified”.

“Unfortunately when nobody’s listening to you sometimes you’ve got to demonstrate that you don’t think it’s right or proper that 25 officers every day are being assaulted when they go to work,” he continued.

"It couldn’t get any worse than it already was and what we now need is positive action to improve the safety of prisons."

Standards across the prison estate have come under intense scrutiny in recent years amid a slew of highly critical reports and a deterioration in safety measures.

Official figures published in July revealed that assault and self-harm incidents had reached record highs, whilst overcrowding is thought to be a growing and exacerbating factor.

The Ministry of Justice said it has doubled the prison sentences for convicts who assault officers and is investing £40 million to improve the estate and tackle drugs problem. It is also enlisting 3,500 new officers.

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