Ford open prison rioters must be punished - minister

Prisoners collect their belongings as a blaze burns on 1 January.
Image caption A review of staffing at the prison is due to take place

There must be no repeat of the violence which broke out at an open prison in West Sussex over the New Year holiday, the prisons minister has said.

Crispin Blunt said those involved in the riot at HMP Ford, near Arundel, "must be brought to justice".

He said two inquiries would be held, and later said there would be a review of staffing levels at the prison.

A number of buildings were burned to the ground during the incident, which is thought to have involved alcohol.

Mr Blunt spent two hours at the site and said he expected a police investigation as well as a Prison Service inquiry.

'Concealed identities'

The Prison Officers' Association said the incident started around midnight on New Year's Eve after staff tried to breathalyse some prisoners.

It was about another 22 hours before the disturbance was "successfully resolved" by specially trained staff, according to the prison service.

About 40 inmates out of the 496 on the site were involved in the riot, and the fires destroyed six accommodation blocks, a mail room, a gym, a snooker room, and a pool room.

The Prison Service had feared it would have to move 150 prisoners to closed conditions either because they were involved in the disturbances or because of damage to their accommodation, but as of Sunday, the figure stood at 23.

Mark Freeman from the Prison Officers' Association said those responsible for the trouble had worn balaclavas to conceal their identities.

He added that six prisoners had been identified as the ring-leaders of the riots.

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Media captionPrisons Minister Crispin Blunt said the events at Ford open prison were ''unprecedented''

Mr Blunt said staff, governors and inmates were "appalled and disgusted" by the riot, and the situation had been "unprecedented in an open prison".

Mr Blunt said: "It's [the prisoners'] community facilities that have been destroyed, and the actions of the prisoners who took part in the incident have therefore absolutely damaged the interests of all the inmates of the prison."

He said a police inquiry could lead to criminal prosecutions, and added: "We must learn the lessons to make sure it does not recur."

The prison service inquiry is to be led by the regional custody manager for Wales.

Mr Blunt later responded to concerns raised by Mr Freeman and others that the prison was understaffed. When the riots broke out, there were two prison officers and four support staff on duty.

The minister told the Press Association (PA) news agency: "One of the issues will be about whether there are particular circumstances at Ford - to examine whether the staffing policies are appropriate at Ford compared to other open prisons."

He revealed the team had minimum staffing on the night after one support officer, who called in sick at short notice, was not replaced - but said when the shifts changed, there had been "no indication or intelligence that anything untowards was happening".

'Not enough staff'

Michael Spurr, from the National Offender Management Service, which is responsible for managing the prison service, said staffing levels at the time were "appropriate and usual".

He added: "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."

But a former inmate, Dave, told BBC Radio 5 live that staffing was a problem at the prison.

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Media captionEoin McLennan-Murray: ''The reaction from the Prison Service has been very good''

He said: "Certain inmates in there they will be encouraged to jump over the fence, nip down to Tescos, which is just down the road, and go and get x amount of pounds of alcohol.

"That's reality. If they had more staff in there it wouldn't happen."

Mr Blunt told PA that the review would look at whether recommendations made by independent inspectors who identified alcohol smuggling at the prison as a "significant problem" in 2009 had been "adequately followed".

Eoin McLennan-Murray from the Prison Governors' Association said the Prison Service had dealt with the unexpected situation effectively.

But Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dem MP chairman of the all-party Justice Select Committee, said ministers had to ensure that security in jails was not compromised by budget cuts - although Mr Blunt earlier said the problems at Ford pre-dated the October spending review.

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

They are given opportunities to work and are helped to resettle. Inmates have more freedom than those in closed prisons.

The Prison Service website says the institution 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.

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