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Kent MP Gordon Henderson calls for prison wardens to be armed with PAVA spray

By Times Guardian reporter

by John Nurden and Ellis Stephenson

Some prisoners in Kent are attacking other inmates so they can stay in jail longer to carry on running lucrative crime gangs.

The claim was made by Sheppey and Sittingbourne MP Gordon Henderson during a Commons debate on prison conditions.

It comes as the politician, who has three jails in his constituency, called for warders to be armed with PAVA spray amid concerns about escalating violence.

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MP Gordon Henderson has called for warders to be armed with PAVA spray
MP Gordon Henderson has called for warders to be armed with PAVA spray

He is also demanding stronger punishment for inmates who attack prison workers, and a clampdown on drugs and mobile phones smuggled into cells.

In the last quarter there were 21,270 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the UK and 8,429 attacks on staff.

But during 2015 and 2016 there were only 149 prosecutions.

Mr Henderson said: “That hardly seems a deterrent. If a police officer is attacked the full weight of the law rightly comes down on the attacker.

"If a prison officer is attacked, too often nothing happens. That cannot be right.”

He said Sheppey prisons had introduced drone-free zones to stop drugs and phones being dropped over the walls and called for gas masks to be issued to officers to protect them from the effects of breathing in the drug ‘spice’ smoked by inmates in cells.

Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson
Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson

He has asked Justice Minister Rory Stewart to let prison officers retire early like the police and firefighters.

Currently they work until aged 66.

Mr Henderson said: “Prison officers are treated as second-class citizens.

"It is particularly difficult to attract staff to work in Sheppey’s prisons because they can earn more in a warehouse.”

Mr Stewart said pay negotiations were going ahead but agreed: “We need to prosecute prisoners who assault prisoner officers.”

The government is doubling the maximum sentence for attacking prison officers from six months to a year, there will be stiffer tests for drugs and additional powers are to be introduced to ban mobile phones from jails.

Standford Hill Prison in Eastchurch
Standford Hill Prison in Eastchurch

Meanwhile, Kent's prisons are almost full to capacity, according to the latest government data.

Of the seven jails in the county, there are just 171 of the 4,359 total number of cells currently unoccupied, statistics from the Ministry of Justice show.

Although none of the prisons is officially overcrowded, when you look at the operational capacity figure which against the overall population, all seem to be stretched.

Maidstone, which has a capacity for 600 prisoners, currently has 60 spaces, Rochester has 13 spaces and capacity for 695 and Swaleside has only 48 out of its 1,059 cells available.

At the end of March, Cookham Wood had four unoccupied cells with an operational capacity of 188, Elmley has 28 of its 1,252 cells left empty, East Sutton Park has 15 out of 101 unoccupied and three in Standford Hill are empty out of 464.

The Howard League for Penal Reform says it is important to look at the number of prisoners the facility was originally designed to hold.

This is because the operational capacity number can change when demand rises and falls.

Rob Preece from the campaign group said: "The number of people in prison has been very high for a very long time.

"It's now at a very unsustainable level. In Kent a quick glance at the figures will show you that we're full to the brim.

"There's a serious problem, the government needs to take steps to reduce the number of people in prison.

"Elmley prison is holding more than 200 more prisoners than it was designed to hold.

"Prisons are getting more dangerous as the overcrowding has become more acute.

"Incidents of self injury and assault continue to rise and it requires urgent attention now to make sure prisons are properly staffed."

When asked specifically about whether people care about the welfare of prisoners Mr Preece said the public "ought to".

"I think people ought to be interested in the welfare of prisoners, the reason being problems in prisons unfortunately spill out into the community," he added.

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