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Prison officers go on strike over health and safety concerns

By Chloe Holmwood

Prison officers have walked out today over health and safety fears - but the High Court has ruled they must return to work.

The Prison Officers Association ordered its members to take part in a day of industrial action after talks with the government broke down.

Workers at prisons across England and Wales, including in Rochester, Maidstone and the Isle of Sheppey, are not working.

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Prison officers protesting outside the Sheppey prisons
Prison officers protesting outside the Sheppey prisons

The POA says as many as 10,000 staff are effectively striking, with only emergency cover provided.

But this afternoon, the government won a High Court injunction against the industrial action, with workers told they must return to normal duties.

The protest has been called after a series of escapes and attacks on inmates and staff at prisons across the country.

This morning, workers could be seen holding a demonstration outside the cluster of prisons on the Isle of Sheppey, which comprises HMP Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside.

VIDEO: Prison officers on strike in Sheppey.

Dave Cook, POA chairman for HMP Swaleside, said: "Going on strike is never an easy decision, especially for prison officers, but we have been driven to this because our health and safety at work has been ignored for many years.

"We have been assaulted and abused, spat at and stabbed whilst in service.

"No one goes to work expecting to be assaulted or stabbed.

"Assaults on staff in the past year have risen by 45% and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults have also risen and spiralled out of control - so this is us saying enough is enough!

"We want to demonstrate that we are serious about protecting our health and safety."

Workers outside the Sheppey prison cluster
Workers outside the Sheppey prison cluster

Reporter Joshua Coupe has been outside Swaleside where around 100 prison officers have been demonstrating.

He said: "Staff began striking just after 7.30am, with many refusing to go into work.

"They're hoping today's action will highlight the violence and abuse they suffer every day.

"One officer has told me how he's regularly threatened, assaulted and spat at by inmates.

He gets paid the same as a supermarket worker and wants the government to take action sooner rather than later.

"Action's also taking place across the county and there's disruption in our courtrooms with no staff around to accompany those standing trial.

"Today's action ends at midnight, but these prison officers will continue to protest for change."

The industrial action resulted in defendants held in custody not being produced at courts in Kent.

Only one judge sat at Canterbury Crown Court, and only two defendants appeared.

Staff who control security inside the building and in the cells were at work but none of the vans which normally bring prisoners from prisons to court arrived.

And a trial involving a man accused of possessing an imitation firearm was postponed until Wednesday, although the lawyers and the judge sat to thrash out legal argument.

Meanwhile, at Maidstone Crown Court, the trial of a man accused of murdering an old soldier whose remains were found in a tent near Canterbury was delayed by the industrial action.

Richard Donovan's case was due to start this afternoon but like others in custody he was not produced from Elmley Prison.

Only his co-defendant Tony Hindmarsh, who is on bail, was in the dock.

Staff gather outside the Sheppey prison cluster
Staff gather outside the Sheppey prison cluster

Judge Adele Williams told jurors: "We are not going to make a start as I was planning as the first defendant is not here because there is industrial action or whatever by the prison service, so he has not been brought."

Donovan is alleged to have shot Philip Fox, 60, between July 1 last year and April 25 this year.

The last time prison officers at Sheppey's cluster of prisons went on strike was August 29, 2007 and it was part of a national strike.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said earlier: "There is no justification for this action.

"We have been engaged in constructive talks with the POA over the last two weeks and have provided a comprehensive response to a range of health and safety concerns.

"The Government has announced an additional 2,500 frontline officers to help reduce violence in prisons.

"We have well-established contingencies in place to manage prisons and keep the public safe but we are clear that this constitutes unlawful industrial action, and we will seek remedy in the courts."

Earlier this year, a report on HMP Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey highlighted high levels of violence.

Last year, prisoners Paul Wadkin and Jason Gomez were jailed for life for murdering fellow inmate Darren Flynn in his cell at the Eastchurch site.

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