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Prison riot 'lessons to be learnt'

Prisons minister Crispin Blunt has promised that lessons will be learnt after rampaging inmates torched buildings in an "unprecedented" jailhouse riot.

After examining the damage at Ford Open Prison near Arundel, West Sussex, Mr Blunt said an inquiry into the incident will examine what sparked the violence and whether insufficient staffing levels were to blame.

The comments came a day after offenders took control, smashed windows and set fire to buildings at the centre. It is thought the violence started after guards attempted to breathalyse inmates for contraband alcohol in the early hours of New Year's Day.

During the early stages of the rebellion, just two officers and four support staff were on duty, at a centre which holds around 500 inmates. The guards were forced to retreat as the violence increased. Scores of riot police and specialist prison officers were brought in before authorities eventually regained control.

By the time firefighters had managed to extinguish the flames, the rampage had destroyed a sizeable part of the complex. Rioters caused extensive damage to six accommodation blocks, a gym, mail room and snooker and pool rooms.

On Sunday, Mr Blunt spent two hours talking to staff and inmates at HMP Ford ahead of a Prison Service inquiry into the incident. He said: "We must learn the lessons to make sure it does not recur."

The inquiry, which could take a month, will provide "policy and operational advice", he said. "At this stage I don't want to give any undertaking about it being published or not. It's an internal piece of work in the first instance."

He went on: "I also anticipate that there will be a police inquiry which may lead to criminal prosecutions. The pattern of behaviour of the perpetrators will be an issue."

The minister said the suitability of offenders being held at Ford, as well as the prisoners' access to alcohol, will need to be examined in the wake of the violence. In the aftermath of the rampage, it was claimed that drink had become a persistent problem at Ford.

Mark Freeman, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said that in the days leading up to the incident about 40 empty bottles of alcohol had been found. He likened recent attempts to test inmates for alcohol to "a scene out of Benny Hill", with officers chasing prisoners for days on end. He said the "prison mutiny" had been "a long time waiting to happen". He also criticised what he saw as the low level of staffing at the open prison.

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