Prison officers are set to take fresh industrial action in crisis-hit jails in England and Wales over pay and pensions and the government’s failure “to provide safe, decent and secure prisons”, said the prison officers’ union.

The government has called the action unlawful and warned it would take legal action.

From Wednesday, members of the Prison Officers Association (POA) will withdraw from a range of voluntary duties, including manning “Tornado” teams, which respond to outbreaks of disorder, and working as first aiders or hostage negotiators. The POA said its members would respond if lives were at risk.

An overtime ban that could cause havoc in already short-staffed prisons will be phased in from April, according to the POA.

In a briefing paper, the union said: “The POA condemns the systematic failure of Noms (National Offender Management Service) to provide safe, decent and secure prisons, failures which have created a prison service in crisis.

“More and more members are being assaulted every day, the increase in self-inflicted deaths and daily security breaches are unacceptable and as a result of staff shortfalls and budget cuts.”

The Ministry of Justice said a “good offer” had been accepted by union leaders in December, but this had been rejected by members. A spokesman said: “Industrial action by prison officers is unlawful. If the POA do not withdraw their bulletin, we will seek an injunction to prevent any such action occurring.

“We made a good offer to the Prison Officers Association in December, which was endorsed by their leadership but rejected by the POA membership.”

He added: “We are working hard to retain the invaluable experience within our workforce and want to recognise the expertise and dedication of prison staff,” he said.

In November, the high court ordered up to 10,000 prison officers to end a 24-hour protest over rising violence in jails and to go back to work after legal action by the justice secretary, Elizabeth Truss, reaffirming the legal ban on prison staff striking.

The latest action comes after a report form the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) revealed that prisoners were too scared to leave their cells for months for fear of violence at HMP Featherstone, near Wolverhampton.

Inspectors found “self-isolating” inmates locked up for the best part of 24 hours, every day, at the Category C training and resettlement prison, which holds about 650 men.

The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, said there had been a “shocking worsening in standards” since the last inspection in 2013.

“One of the symptoms of the lack of safety was the number of men who chose to self-isolate in an attempt to escape the violence.”

A survey found nearly two in three (63%) inmates said it was easy to get drugs, while levels of violence had increased including assaults on staff. The prison’s segregation unit remained closed during the inspection in October and November last year, after being seriously damaged by prisoners, while many cells were dirty, poorly ventilated and covered in graffiti.

Clarke said the decline at Featherstone was “clear evidence of poor industrial relations, staff shortages and some significant prisoner unrest”.

Last week, Truss announced thousands of prison staff would receive a pay rise in a drive to increase staffing levels, in an attempt to combat the jail safety crisis. Frontline staff in London and the south-east will earn up to £5,000 more as part of a £12m package.

But the prison officers’ union said the system was in “meltdown” and described the pay rise like “placing a plaster over a gaping wound”.

The POA said the pay rise had “incensed” its members, many of whom would not benefit.

Earlier this month, Truss unveiled a blueprint for prison reform and the replacement of Noms. Measures include recruiting 2,500 frontline officers and instituting “no-fly zones” to stop drones dropping drugs and other contraband into prisons.

Prison violence in England and Wales has reached critical levels in recent months, with assaults on staff up by 43% in the year to June.

This article was sourced from http://transactionsmagazine.com