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Further industrial action not ruled out if prison talks fail, Government warned

Published 16/11/2016

Prison officers outside London's Pentonville Prison
Prison officers outside London's Pentonville Prison

Prison officers could take fresh industrial action if their concerns over the crisis in jails are not addressed, the Government has been warned.

Union bosses said they had held "positive" talks with Justice Secretary Liz Truss on Thursday - two days after thousands of guards stopped work amid claims the service was "in meltdown".

But speaking after the meeting, Mike Rolfe, national chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA), refused to rule out further action.

He said: "Our members need to feel safe. Our health and safety concerns need to be taken seriously.

"If these talks fall flat on their face then we won't be able to rule anything out. We realise the implications of that.

"We are responsible, our members are responsible, but it's got to such a dire position, where people's lives are at risk, that we needed to act."

As many as 10,000 officers held protests outside jails in England and Wales on Tuesday - forcing ministers to take the unusual step of going to the High Court to secure an injunction to order them back to work.

The POA directed members to take action after talks with the Government broke down amid surging numbers of assaults on staff and high-profile incidents such as the escape of two inmates who were later recaptured.

Mr Rolfe said it was "unfortunate" that the union took the step - but insisted it was essential to "raise the profile" of what was going on behind bars.

He told BBC News: "Our members can no longer face the levels of violence they are facing. Prisoners should not be subjected to the high levels of violence they are experiencing."

Prison officer numbers need to go up "quickly", he said, adding that a recruitment drive to add 2,500 new staff was a "good start" but "we would certainly want to see a lot more".

In a statement after the meeting, Ms Truss said she had held "constructive talks" with the union.

She said: " I expressed my disappointment at their unlawful industrial action. However, now prison officers are back at work, it is important that we move forward.

"I have always been clear that my priority is making prisons places of safety and reform and I outlined the immediate progress we are making on security and staff recruitment and retention.

"We agreed that discussions would resume between my team and the POA to help ensure we have safe regimes in our prisons."

Speaking earlier on Thursday, Ms Truss said there are "serious issues" in jails and admitted it will take time to turn the situation around.

A fortnight ago she unveiled her blueprint for prison reform, including the staffing increase as well as measures to stop drones dropping drugs into jails and block the illegal use of mobile phones.

There have been a string of grave warnings about the state of jails, with official figures showing rising levels of violence - including a sharp jump in the number of attacks on staff.

Fresh controversy erupted on Wednesday after photos emerged of inmates eating steaks and takeaways.

An investigation has been launched after the publication of pictures - which appeared also to depict drug possession - taken on an illegally-held phone inside HMP Guys Marsh, near Shaftesbury, Dorset, and posted to social media.

In other developments, former justice secretary Michael Gove said too many people are being sent to prison while a report revealed hundreds of offenders jailed under an abolished sentencing scheme are still in custody years beyond their minimum term.

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