PRISON Officers Association representatives were warned at their union conference in May that the prison service was “sleepwalking into the next riot.”
Delegate Martin Field dramatised a situation all his colleagues could empathise with — namely that government public spending cuts, overcrowding and underfunding were creating an explosive cocktail.
The POA raised with government last year’s autumn of prison unrest, but the Tories didn’t accept the seriousness of the situation and expected prison officers to manage with less.
Just as other trade unionists would do, POA members have taken industrial action to concentrate management’s minds, but the government has resorted to court action to deny their right to take effective action against the untenable position imposed on them.
As they predicted, short staffing contributed to the situation at The Mount prison in Hertfordshire at the weekend where prisoners took over the Nash wing housing 250 prisoners.
The entire prison held 720 inmates a decade ago, but that has reached a thousand, with many experienced staff leaving the service and insufficient numbers of newly recruited officers replacing them.
The Tornado Team of specially trained staff detailed to reassert order where prisoners riot and take over institutions were ordered into The Mount once again yesterday morning.
While the inmate total in The Mount has increased, staffing levels have, as with the prison service as a whole, fallen, with no fewer than 24 officer vacancies notified in February out of an authorised complement of 136.
Inadequate staffing brings foreseeable consequences of less effective searches to stop drugs and other contraband being smuggled into prisons and longer periods of prisoners being locked in their cells because no officers are available to supervise them safely.
The government claims to understand the need to tackle staff shortages, but it refuses to understand why recruitment and retention have become so problematic.
Prison officers are public servants and, like their comrades throughout our public services, have suffered a capitalist austerity agenda that dictates maximum pay rises of below the rate of inflation — a real-terms reduction in spending power and standard of living.
Pay review bodies, including the one for prison officers, are instructed to make recommendations that accept a 1 per cent pay rise limit — a pay cut.
Ministry of Justice acceptance that more staff are necessary is worthless without recognition that pay levels require serious attention.
This demands meaningful negotiations with the prison officers’ union, not provocative unilateralism such as the imposition of annual bonuses to only one section of officers in just 31 prisons, as Justice Minister Sam Gyimah announced in March.
The Mount provides another red light warning to the government. Effective action is overdue and critical.
ANTI-SEMITISM remains a scourge to be fought as tenaciously today as previously, demonstrated by publication of a clearly anti-semitic article in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times.
But, as the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) makes clear, there are major problems associated with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism and its linked statement.
The JSG alternative definition is more concise and distinguishes clearly between anti-semitism and criticism of the reactionary ideology of zionism.
Britain’s labour movement, especially the left, has come under fire unfairly for alleged anti-semitism because of its support for Palestinian national rights.
Some organisations have reacted by declaring support mistakenly for the IHRA statement, whereas the JSG response merits acceptance, study and wider discussion throughout the movement.