LONDON — Britain’s High Court has ordered thousands of prison officers to end a walkout over rising violence behind bars.
Members of the Prison Officers Association protested Tuesday by stopping work, though they said they would respond to emergencies.
Prison guards are barred from striking and the government asked the court to rule the protest unlawful.
Justice Secretary Liz Truss said the walkout was “actively putting people at risk of harm.”
Prison staffers say government cuts have made their jobs more dangerous and worsened conditions for prisoners.
The union says prison violence and inmate suicides are rising. Earlier this month, 200 prisoners rioted at Bedford Prison in southern England, and separately two inmates escaped from London’s Pentonville Prison.
Tuesday’s walkout led to court hearings being abandoned because prisoners couldn’t appear in court.
High Court orders halt to prison protests
Prison officers have been ordered to end a 24-hour protest and return to work after a High Court injunction was granted against industrial action.
Up to 10,000 prison officers in England and Wales have stopped work over claims of a “surge in violence” in jails.
It is illegal for the profession to strike, but the Prison Officers Association says “protest action” was needed to keep staff and inmates safe.
The justice secretary had said the action was “unnecessary and unlawful”.
Court cases had been halted by the protest action.
At the High Court, government lawyers seeking an injunction against the POA accused the union of trying to impose “its own limited regime” against the wishes of governors and prison service chiefs.
Daniel Stilitz QC, for the Ministry of Justice, said the POA had no legal right to instruct its members to walk out in what amounted to a strike.
“What they are doing is seeking to take over the control of jails from governors and run them on a controlled lock-down basis,” he said.
“Each hour that goes by with the prisons unmanned, the danger ramps up.”
But Stuart Brittenden, for the POA, insisted the officers’ action was not illegal and was necessary because they were being forced to work in an “unlawful” situation because of a lack of health and safety in jails.
He said the protests came after two weeks of fruitless attempts to persuade justice secretary to change jail regime to make them safer.
Speaking in the Commons earlier, Justice Secretary Liz Truss said prison officers did a “tough and difficult job”, but the POA had failed to respond to government proposals to tackle their concerns.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said the events were the “clearest sign yet of… a crisis” in prisons and the government had “lost control”.
It has not yet been revealed how many court cases have come to a standstill because of the action, but high profile trials have been stopped, including that at the Old Bailey of Thomas Mair, who is accused of murdering MP Jo Cox.
Six prison governors had also been due to give evidence to a Commons justice committee hearing on Tuesday morning but, because of the action, none of them turned up.
The POA says “chronic staff shortages and impoverished regimes” have “resulted in staff no longer being safe, a lack of discipline and prisoners taking control of areas”.
“The continued surge in violence and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self harm, coupled with the recent murder and escapes demonstrate that the service is in meltdown.”
The union’s national chairman, Mike Rolfe, said most prisons had staff “out the front” and taking part in Tuesday’s protest.
He told the BBC: “All we can do is offer assurances that our members do not take this lightly.
“Conditions have got so extreme and so dangerous in prisons for both the prison officers and the prisoners, it cannot carry on.
“We need to sort this out before any more lives are lost or blood is shed.”
Earlier this month, Ms Truss unveiled a White Paper detailing £1.3bn investment in new prisons over the next five years, including plans for 2,100 extra prison officers, drug tests for inmates on entry and exit from prisons, and more autonomy for governors.
Analysis: Danny Shaw, home affairs correspondent
Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is the piece of legislation that in effect bans prison officers from taking industrial action.
It says ministers can bring legal proceedings against anyone who “induces” a prison officer to “withhold” their services or “commit a breach of discipline”.
The last time a prison “strike” ended up in the courts was in 2007 – following a dispute about pay. A legal injunction designed to stop the action was granted and extended the following year.
In 2012, when prison officers walked out over pension changes, along with other public sector workers, ministers threatened to go the courts but never did.
Since then, a series of short union “meetings” outside jails have been held, at various times, but none has resulted in legal proceedings.
Today’s action, however, is destined to be different.
The protest began at midnight and comes after multiple high-profile incidents at prisons across England, including an alleged murder, a riot and two inmates escaping from Pentonville prison in London.
Two men were arrested on suspicion of murder after Jamal Mahmoud died after being stabbed at Pentonville jail on 18 October in an attack which left two others injured.
And earlier this month prisoners caused almost £1m of damage during a riot at Bedford prison.
Days later at HMP Isle of Wight, an inmate cut a prison officer’s throat with a razor blade on the way back to his cell.
The mother of two prison officers has told the BBC she is “frightened every day” for the safety of her sons.
Prison officers are looking “for safety not money” but face violence, long hours and staff shortages, she said, adding: “It just desperately needs sorting… before it all blows up for officers and prisoners.”
Dave Todd, POA representative for London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, said he felt more vulnerable walking the landings in prisons than he had walking the streets of Northern Ireland during his time in the Army in the early 1990s.
National Offender Management Service chief executive Michael Spurr agreed there were “serious issues about safety in prisons”.
But he added: “That’s exactly the sort of conversations we were having with the POA. That’s why this action is just so disappointing, unnecessary and dangerous.”
Tags: Bedford Prison, Britain, Kent, lack of discipline and prisoners taking control of areas, London, London's Pentonville Prison, POA, prison officers, Prison Officers Association, striking, Surrey, Sussex, UK