Lax security at Ford Open Prison will be reviewed after claims that illegal alcohol fuelled a New Year's Eve riot causing damage estimated at £2m.
Yesterday Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt confirmed that staffing levels at Ford would be the focus of an inquiry into the night-time disturbance, which occurred when only two prison officers and four support staff were on duty.
It is estimated that 40 of the total 500 inmates turned violent in the early hours after officers attempted to breathalyse them for contraband alcohol.
The rioters set light to buildings during the night and again at lunchtime, causing extensive damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms.
Ministers were warned 18 months ago about the security risks of drinking at the prison in a damning report into the West Sussex jail.
Mr Blunt, who spent two hours talking to staff and inmates at Ford prison, near Arundel, said the Prison Service inquiry will need to consider whether the violence could be repeated.
The suitability of the inmates being held at Ford, as well as the prisoners' access to alcohol, will also need to be examined in the wake of the violence which saw communal areas of the jail destroyed, Mr Blunt said. A separate police inquiry will look into whether any of the inmates will face criminal prosecution.
Asked if having just two trained officers and four support staff for the 496 prisoners was appropriate, Mr Blunt said: “It's an issue that will be part of the inquiry and an issue around the policy of staffing levels at all open prisons.
“What we need to remember was that the incident was unprecedented.”
However, in May 2009 the then chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that Ford Prison had a problem with security.
Inspectors who visited the prison two years ago found that alcohol abuse was common among prisoners and poor security meant that Ford was awash with other contraband. In one weekend staff found that convicts had smuggled in 30 bottles of vodka.
The night before the inspectors arrived two prisoners were described as “violently drunk” and were moved to a segregation unit.
Ms Owers said in her report that security problems at the jail meant large finds of alcohol were common and prisoners also smuggled in drugs and mobile phones.
Mark Freeman, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said alcohol had been a concern at the jail for some time, with dozens of empty bottles found in recent days.