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  1. ITV Report

'I've been assaulted six times in just one year': Prison officer speaks out over soaring violence behind bars

  • Video report by ITV News correspondent Richard Pallot

A prison officer has revealed how he has been repeatedly assaulted by inmates - coming under attack six times since he started the job one year ago.

Ben Blunt was one of hundreds of staff up and down the country who staged a mass walk-out on Friday morning amid concerns over "unprecedented" levels of violence and other safety concerns.

"I think they're too mollycoddled today," he told ITV News.

"Effectively, they almost have more rights than we do. We just get things chucked at us - and then we're expected to go back in there and deal with it again."

The strike was organised by the Prison Officers Association (POA), the trade union for prison staff. By 1pm, they were told to return to work, with union bosses welcoming "meaningful engagement" in talks with prisons minister Rory Stewart.

Stewart "recognised that our concerns are justified and need addressing", General secretary Steve Gillan said.

He said he was "confident a deal is a deal" after the prison service "backed down" over seeking an injunction against the demonstrators.

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They have been demonstrating outside prisons in England and Wales from 7am over "unprecedented" levels of violence and safety concerns.

The walkout followed a damning report warning of a “dangerous lack of control” at HMP Bedford, their union said.

But Justice Secretary David Gauke branded Friday's action "wrong" and "irresponsible", adding that it "does nothing" to help reduce levels of violence.

He told reporters: "I agree with those who say that the level of violence is unacceptably high and we are determined to bring it down.

"But I think action of this sort does nothing to help that process, and locking prisoners up for 24 hours a day, which may be the consequence of what the POA are doing, only increases the risk of violence.

During the strike prisons minister Rory Stewart said he respected there are issues but "this isn't the way to go about it".

After the resolution he said:“I am pleased that all parties have been able to bring a swift resolution to this action which, as I have made clear, was irresponsible and placed fellow staff and prisons at risk."

The action had knock-on effects on court cases, with some defendants in custody unable to be transported to hearings.

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.

The union will hold talks with the prison service on Monday, Mr Gillan said.

The MoJ has contingency plans in place after prison staff across the country staged protests Credit: ITV News

The POA, which said it has 20,000 members in England and Wales, said about 90% of prison staff were members of the union.

Labour backed the protest, with shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon calling on the government to launch an "emergency plan" with new funds.

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On Thursday, Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke raised the alarm over the potential for a “complete breakdown” in order and discipline at HMP Bedford.

Inmates have effectively taken control at the violent, overcrowded and vermin-infested jail, his report has warned.

The HMP Bedford report is the fourth urgent notification the Government has issued since the scheme was introduced less than a year ago.

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The process has also been triggered in relation to HMP Nottingham, HMP Exeter and HMP Birmingham.

In his annual report for 2017/18, Mr Clarke warned that staff and inmates have become “inured” to conditions unacceptable in 21st century Britain.

He highlighted how thousands of inmates are living in squalid and overcrowded cells, locked up for nearly 24 hours a day.

Official figures published in July revealed that assault and self-harm incidents were continuing to rise, both reaching new record highs.

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Authorities are also faced with a major task to stem the flow of contraband.

In the 12 months to March, there were 13,119 incidents of finding drugs in prisons – a rise of nearly a quarter (23%) compared to the previous year.

In particular, new psychoactive substances such as Spice have been described as a “game-changer” for safety behind bars.

Discoveries of mobile phones and SIM cards are also on the rise, going up by 15% and 13% respectively in 2017/18.

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Overcrowding remains a key issue, with the prison population almost doubling between 1993 and 2016.

The prison population is forecast to “steadily” rise by more than 3,000 over the next five years, according to Ministry of Justice analysis, reaching roughly 86,400 places in March 2023.

The MoJ said it doubled the prison sentence for anyone who assaults prison officers on Thursday.

It is also investing £40 million to improve the estate and tackle the drugs problem, with 3,500 new officers to help ease the burden.