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Home   Medway   News   Article

Kent prisons 'overcrowded and understaffed' as Ministry of Justice struggles to recruit new prison officers

11 July 2014
by Gareth Arnold

As prisoner numbers continue to rise, Kent has lost a third of its prison officers according to research by a national charity.

The news comes after a spate of escapes from the county’s jails - including the infamous armed robber Michael Wheatley, also known as the Skull Cracker.

The number of prison officers has fallen drastically across the south east, with many Kent prisons losing more than 30% of officers compared to 2010.

East Sutton Park open prison in Sutton Valence has lost 55 per cent of its prison officers since 2010

East Sutton Park open prison in Sutton Valence has lost 55 per cent of its prison officers since 2010

The worst hit is East Sutton Park women's prison, which has lost more than 50% of its prison officers.

The problem is particularly bad in Kent as high living costs and low wages make recruiting prison officers increasingly difficult, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Campaigns director Andrew Neilson said: "The starting salary for a prison officer is less than that of a baggage handler at Heathrow.

"This makes it very difficult to recruit prison officers in the south east because you could earn more handling baggage at a major airport than dealing with the very difficult issues prison officers face.

"And Kent is a part of the country that has a higher density of prisons because it serves greater London."

Andrew Neilson, campaigns director at the Howard League for Penal Reform

Andrew Neilson, campaigns director at the Howard League for Penal Reform

The failure to recruit prison officers makes conditions for both staff and prisoners increasingly dangerous, according to Mr Neilson.

He said: "Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are up and assaults on staff highest level since record began. Prisoners also spend most of the day on their bunks and not in work or education.

"East Sutton Park is a women's prison so it doesn't have some of the problems we see in male prisons to do with violence.

"What we do see is a serious rise in self harm and that's not helped by having fewer staff watching the women under your care.

"The justice system is being asked to make budget cuts as all public services are, but what we are also seeing is that the justice system is not looking at demand."

The number of prison officers in the county's jails has fallen across the board

The number of prison officers in the county's jails has fallen across the board

Since May 2010, 18 jails in England and Wales have closed with the loss of almost 6,500 places. This means an increasing prison population is crammed into a diminishing number of establishments.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said: "Violence and drug use is out of control and we will all suffer the consequences. This is the most irresponsible government penal policy in a generation."

The Ministry of Justice has disputed the figures, claiming the criticism is politically motivated.

A spokesman said: "These are flawed and inaccurate figures from a left wing pressure group which can't see past its dislike of this government. These figures present a misleading picture of the prison estate. 

"Our approach to staffing levels has been agreed with the unions to ensure we run safe, efficient and decent prisons with prison officers back in frontline roles where they are most needed.
 
"Where there are local staffing issues we are taking action to resolve this, including a widespread recruitment campaign and the creation of a reserve force of officers who can be used nationally when required."

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