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Low number of staff sparked prisons riot

Last month thousands of officers walked out amid claims the system was 'in meltdown'

A spate of prison riots erupted after warnings were raised repeatedly about low staffing levels across the estate, according to a watchdog.

John Thornhill, president of the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards, said the disturbance at HMP Birmingham is "yet more evidence" of concerns about rising levels of violence.

He said IMBs - which provides a monitoring presence in every prison in England and Wales - has regularly questioned staffing levels and regimes across many establishments in recent years.

"IMBs are perturbed that their dedication to the monitoring role on a weekly basis is frustrated by a failure to respond to the issues raised at a national level in their annual reports," Mr Thornhill said.

He warned low staffing levels means prisoners are denied access to a range of facilities.

"They become frustrated, tension and violence increase and become more widespread," Mr Thornhill said. " The result, as we have seen in recent weeks, is an increase in riots that damage the system and individuals.

"The impact of this unrestrained violence is that a large number of prisoners have to be transferred to other prisons that are already stretched with their own problems and staffing issues."

On Monday Justice Secretary Liz Truss address MPs on the riot at HMP Birmingham, which saw hundreds of inmates wreak havoc in the jail.

It was the third major disturbance in less than two months following trouble at Bedford and Lewes prisons.

And there were also warnings that violence could spread to other facilities amid "simmering tensions" after 240 offenders were transferred from Birmingham.

Hundreds of inmates were caught up in the disorder on Friday over four wings of the category B prison, which is run by private firm G4S.

Riot squads and specially-trained prison guards took back control after more than 12 hours of chaos in which stairwells were set on fire and paper records destroyed.

It emerged at the weekend an IMB report on Birmingham published earlier this year warned that staff feared violence at the prison because of the prevalence of drugs.

Surging levels of assaults and self-harm behind bars have prompted fears of a safety crisis and last month thousands of officers walked out amid claims the system was "in meltdown".

Ms Truss has announced a string of measures aimed at tackling the issues including a recruitment drive to add 2,500 staff and mandatory drug testing across the estate.

Union bosses have highlighted falls in staffing levels seen in recent years, while the availability of drugs previously known as legal highs have been identified as a major problem.

Campaign groups have called for prison numbers to be lowered to reduce overcrowding.