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Probe into inmate disturbance at HMP Swaleside

Police and prison authorities are investigating after a jail was plunged into chaos when around 60 inmates seized control of part of a wing.

Fires were lit during the unrest at HMP Swaleside after prisoners took over a landing shortly before 7pm on Thursday, forcing riot-trained "Tornado" squads to be deployed.

The disturbance at the category B training prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent was suppressed after several hours and those involved were back in their cells at around 1am, the Prison Service said.

Police are aiding an investigation into the latest episode of trouble in UK prisons.

It came hours after the jail safety crisis deepened when it emerged that prison officers had "overwhelmingly" rejected an improved pay deal from the Government.

A Prison Service spokeswoman said:"The challenges in our prisons are long-standing and won't be solved overnight, but the Justice Secretary is committed to making sure our prisons are stable while we deliver wholescale reforms to the prison estate to help offenders turn their lives around and reduce reoffending."

Barking dogs could be heard from outside the prison as officers fought to bring the situation under control.

The disturbance was confined to a landing on a single wing and the rest of the prison was secure, the Prison Service said.

It was the fourth major disturbance at an English prison in less than two months, coming a week after hundreds of inmates rioted at Birmingham prison, and will ratchet up pressure on embattled Justice Secretary Liz Truss.

HMP Swaleside has a capacity of around 1,100 inmates serving terms of more than four years. It has eight wings comprised of single cells.

Swaleside was condemned by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) in July, which described it in a report as "dangerous", with levels of violence that were "far too high" and many incidents of a serious nature.

Last week, hundreds of inmates rioted for more than 12 hours at Birmingham prison, one of the country's biggest jails. Some 240 prisoners were transferred from the prison but it is understood none was taken to Swaleside.

On November 6 about 200 inmates went on the rampage at HMP Bedford days after a national response unit had to be sent in to control prisoners after a six-hour incident at HMP Lewes in East Sussex.

Prison officers have made repeated calls for the Government to step in to improve conditions, with union bosses urging ministers to return to the negotiating table after an offer on pay and pensions was dismissed by members.

Prison Officers Association chairman Mike Rolfe said the relationship between prison officers and inmates had broken down across the country because of cuts to staffing levels.

"What you have is a really unhelpful mix around the prison estate of prisoner-staff relationships now, where staff numbers have been cut so that staff don't feel confident or empowered to be able to do their role. That's led to a breakdown of the relationship," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"What you need to foster a good environment is prison officers who are able to work with prisoners but then help mentor them towards education and work, because most prisoners don't want to do that instantly, so you need to have healthy relationships to start turning their lives around.

"We have completely lost that at the moment, there's a real breakdown and division between the two groups."

Former Swaleside governor John Podmore told Today that "prisons are undoubtedly dangerous" and suggested that fewer people should be locked up.

He said: "We should be sending fewer people to jail in absolute terms but we need to be looking at who we are locking up, why we are locking them up and how we deal with the way in which they are offending against society. We need a much more subtle approach than what we have at the moment."

Kent Police said: "Kent Police is liaising with Her Majesty's Prison Service in relation to a disturbance at HMP Swaleside on Thursday 22 December 2016."

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