Ford open prison riot tackled by specialist officers

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Media captionMark Freeman of the Prison Officers Association said staff were chasing prisoners, trying to get breath tests

Specialist prison guards in body armour have quelled a riot by around 40 inmates at an open jail in West Sussex.

A number of buildings were burned to the ground at Ford Prison, near Arundel, during the violence which broke out early on New Year's Day.

Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said the disturbance was "successfully resolved" by 2200 GMT.

The Prison Service said 100 prisoners were being moved to other jails.

A spokesman said: "Those identified as being involved in the disturbance will be relocated back into closed conditions."

Mr Spurr said the disturbance had started at midnight on 1 January and it had been brought to an end by "specially trained prison staff".

"Although damage has been sustained to the prison, there has only been a minimal loss of accommodation," he said.

"These types of incidents in open prisons are rare and it is to the credit of all the staff involved that no staff or prisoners sustained significant injuries during the incident."

He said staffing levels at the time were "appropriate and usual" and a "high-level investigation" had been launched.

No injuries

The Prison Officers' Association said the incident started after staff tried to breathalyse some prisoners.

Mark Freeman from POA said there had only been two prison officers and four support staff on duty when the riot began.

He said those responsible for the trouble had worn balaclavas to conceal their identities.

Throughout the day, authorities struggled to regain control, and two fire engines and scores of prison officers in riot gear were sent to the site.

The situation worsened at lunchtime when three further accommodation blocks were burned to the ground.

The arson attacks claimed a total of six accommodation blocks, a gymnasium, a mail room, a snooker room and a pool room including 10 newly-installed pool tables.

Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt said the prisoners being transferred were being moved to other, closed prisons, either because they were involved in the disturbances or because of damage to their accommodation.

He confirmed there would be a formal inquiry, to be led by the regional custody manager for Wales, and said the issue of prisoners having access to alcohol would be looked at.

"This disturbance appeared to have started when the staff were doing absolutely what they should have done, which was, after seeing people drink alcohol, wishing to breathalyse them and that would have then had consequences for the prisoners concerned, such as taking them away from an open prison and it seems that that is what then set off this extremely unfortunate chain of events."

Mr Blunt warned those who were not directly involved but witnessed the events that they would be required to provide "full and frank" accounts of what they saw if they wanted to remain in an open prison.

"This is an extremely unusual event in an open prison because prisoners have a great deal to lose and they are, certainly as far as any influence I can bring to bear, going to lose it," the minister told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

Staff shortages

Mr Freeman told the BBC: "We believe alcohol has played a large part in this.

"Over the past few nights prisoners have been reluctant to be breathalysed by staff. The staff have been chasing them round the blocks trying to breathalyse them, which is sort of reminiscent of the end scene from Benny Hill to me.

"And the fact is that this is what kicked it off last night was breathalysing the inmates. They didn't want to be breathalysed and the riot kicked off in the early hours of this morning.

"It has been a concern for a long, long time - the amount of alcohol that prisoners are able to get here at Ford. I understand that over 40 bottles of alcohol have been found empty - a great problem."

He added that staff shortages and prisoners who had been wrongly categorised added to local difficulties.

"It's very difficult when you have a very small staff, which they did last night.

"In our view they do not have enough staff. The general policy is that prisons in an open state have less staff but we feel they should have more because they have more access to illegal activities."

HMP Ford accepts category D offenders who have under two years left to serve on their sentences.

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Media captionCrispin Blunt: "a necessity to police it consistent with it being an open prison"

The Prison Service website says the institution - which can hold up to 557 inmates - does not house criminals who have been convicted of arson, some sexual offences, or "restraining" offences.

The facility is split into two sites divided by a main road. One of the sides is mainly residential, while the other generally consists of work spaces.

Concerns had been raised in the past about the way the prison was operated.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "No-one wins from a prison disturbance.

"It endangers prisoners and staff, worries families and ends in a high cost the Prison Service can ill afford.

"Once control is fully re-established, a review is called for to determine how and why this happened. Events of this kind are very rare in open prisons, which serve an important purpose to rehabilitate people who have served ever lengthening sentences."

In 2009, the prison's own Independent Monitoring Board said people had been able to smuggle in drugs, alcohol and mobile phones.

It called for upgraded CCTV for the site to be installed as a priority.

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