‘Our prisons are in crisis’ – escalating violence and staff shortages at Highpoint and Chelmsford

Highpoint Prison in Suffolk is reported to have problems with staff recruitment as well as the drug

Highpoint Prison in Suffolk is reported to have problems with staff recruitment as well as the drug spice. Picture: ANDY ABBOTT - Credit: Archant

Chronic staff shortages and escalating violence have been reported at prisons in Suffolk and Essex amid national warnings of a service in crisis.

Chelmsford Prison is also reported to suffer from staff shortages. Picture: ANDREW PARSONS

Chelmsford Prison is also reported to suffer from staff shortages. Picture: ANDREW PARSONS - Credit: PA

Recent reports on Highpoint and Chelmsford prisons have raised “serious concerns” about low staffing levels while official figures show a steep rise in assaults on prisoners and guards.

Nationally, staffing problems have led Prison Governors Association (PGA) president, Andrea Albutt, to warn of a “crisis” and “unacceptable stress and anxiety” faced by staff.

Ms Albutt said the growth in prison populations had left the service with “virtually no headroom”, placing strain on already limited resources. She said the loss of accommodation and frequent relocation of prisoners made for a “toxic mix”.

Calls for reform have been met with “nothing tangible” from the Ministry of Justice, Mrs Albutt added. She said she was “devastated” by the “complete decline” of the service but praised colleagues for their commitment.

Independent monitoring board (IMB) reports for Highpoint and Chelmsford reflect similar issues.

The IMB for Highpoint, west Suffolk, highlighted “serious concerns” about staffing levels and challenges in maintaining safety. The availability of the drug spice is said to result in “unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviour”.

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At Chelmsford, the IMB also highlights “significant problems” in retaining officers, as well as high levels of staff sickness. The report raises “ongoing worries” about bullying and self-harm, which have “increased sharply”.

Official figures show the number of “assault incidents” at Highpoint increased from 93 in 2010 to 350 in 2016. At Chelmsford it increased from 131 in 2013 to 414 last year. Assaults on staff almost doubled last year at Highpoint.

Suffolk prison reform campaigner Faith Spear, who was dismissed as Hollesley Bay’s IMB chairman after disclosing information, said the PGA’s comments showed the MoJ was still not doing enough.

She said there were problems with recruitment, which could give rise to “instability” in prisons due to inexperienced staff.

“Some new recruits I have met recently would be eaten alive on some of the prison landings,” she added. “Our prisons are in crisis and reform is taking too long.”

Reports of assaults in Hollesley, like most open prisons are low.

‘We have taken immediate action to boost prison officer numbers’

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We know that our prisons have faced a number of long-standing challenges, which is why we have taken immediate action to boost prison officer numbers and have created Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.

“This will help to create a distinct, professionalised frontline service and will ensure that policy and operations are working closely together to deliver these much needed reforms.

“We need to create calm and ordered environments to help ensure effective rehabilitation, and we continue to work closely with the unions and all staff to help achieve these vital reforms and make prisons places of safety and reform.”

Last year, the Government said it would recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers at a cost of £104million.