Three months after serious concerns were first raised in the Epsom Guardian about conditions in High Down prison a fresh wave of complaints have come in about prisoners being locked in their cells round the clock and solicitors even finding it difficult to visit their clients.

Earlier this year the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and the prison's governor, Ian Bickers, assured the public there was no crisis at the prison, and that problems highlighted by a damning inspection report last year were just teething problems caused by cuts to staffing levels and a tightening-up of the prison regime.

But now fresh concerns have been raised by relatives of men in the prison - which now has 28 staff vacancies compared to 25 in April.

Their complaints include inmates being locked in their cells for 23-and-a-half hours a day, not being able to attend classes or outdoor exercise, a 10-day backlog of post, solicitors not being able to book legal visits, an ineffective raffle ticket visits system and severe staff shortages.

Last month, Crispin Blunt, MP for Banstead, visited the prison. 

He said that while he believes the challenges faced by High Down are "systemic and not particular" to the prison, he found it "rather odd" that the Prison Officers’ Association's (POA) members at High Down would not agree to meet him to discuss what was happening.

He said: "There have been substantial regime changes in the course of the last year imposed on the prison service, which have led to reports made about prisoners having difficulties getting to their activities. 

"But the prison is in the process of settling down to the new regime and making the new system work, with the establishment of a new, tighter regime. 

"Hopefully things are going to improve.

"This was also reinforced by the comments of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) which said last year had been a difficult year for the prison.

"It seemed to be well-led."

But he added: "Lord Ramsbottom, former chief inspector of prisons, always looked at the relationship between the governance of a prison and the POA.   It was rather odd.

“The fact that they were not prepared to see me isn’t good.”

Mr Blunt said he spent a considerable amount of time speaking to three prisoners during his visit who are his constituents.

He said: "It was a snapshot. 

"I have spoken to IMB members there and made it clear that I was anxious for them to be my eyes and ears. 

"My conclusion was that the issues associated with High Down were systemic not particular to High Down."

Last week, Kevin Hurley, Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner, who has also visited High Down, said the prison has a very good governor, but there are "inadequate staff numbers to allow for rehabilitative work". 

A source inside the prison told this newspaper that staff numbers are so stretched that prison officers are missing comfort breaks.

One partner of an inmate, who also visited High Down three years ago, said: "It’s a complete shambles. It’s a million times worse.

"Before visits were swarming with officers, now visitors sit on prisoners’ laps.  It used to be stricter and professional.

"They are so under-staffed."

She said that she has only paid one visit to the prison, but on that occasion prisoners were 30 minutes late being brought out as there were not enough staff members and that prisoners stayed in the visiting hall for an extra 30 minutes because there were not enough staff to take them back to the cells.

One mother of a prisoner said: "My son has been on remand for four weeks now and for most of this time has been locked up for 23 and 24 hours a day.

"A number of solicitors have confirmed that it is almost impossible to book legal visits.

"There should be a call for all prisons to have public and inmate representation on their boards to view complaints and review their overall performance.

"Surely systems like these need to be re-worked so that prisoners can be adequately rehabilitated and reintegrated into our society. 

"The MoJ is in complete denial of the reality of what is going on at the coalface and, as many other people have commented, my son is not yet convicted.  

"I also have concerns about the mental well-being of people in High Down and wonder if we don't tackle this now we may be creating further psychological and mental health problems for prisoners which in the lon- term will result in more costs for the Government and more than likely higher re-offending rates."

Responding to the claims, the MoJ said the POA was offered a private meeting with Mr Blunt, which it chose to decline.

It said in the last three months, attendance at classes has averaged more than 77 per cent.

A spokesman said: "We always ensure that there are enough staff in order to deliver effective rehabilitation.

"There will always be reasons for those unable to attend - including legal visits and healthcare."

It said the MoJ has not received any complaints about prison officers at High Down feeling that they are unable to take comfort breaks.

It denied that prisoners are being locked up for 23-and-a-half hours, said there have been no reports of 10-day post backlogs, and no complaints about the ticket system used for visitors.

"The prison regime ensures that prisoners are not locked up for this period of time.  

A spokesman said: "There are now two less officers in the visit hall but visits have been running to time and we are not aware of any instances of girlfriends sitting on prisoners’ laps. 

"This is not allowed and would be swiftly stopped."

He added: "The longest delay regarding post High Down experienced was four days during the Easter holiday weekend.  

"There have been no complaints about the ticket system - a system that has been running effectively for a prologed period of time."

The spokesman said temporary staff are in place to cover for the vacancies and that recruitment is ongoing.

A Prison Service spokesman added: "As the IMB pointed out earlier this year, there is much magnificent work being done at High Down with improvements continuing to be made across a number of areas.

"Nationally we are making prisons more effective and cheaper to run - not by cutting services or reducing quality but by fundamentally changing the way we operate.

"We will always ensure there are enough staff in order to deliver effective rehabilitation, with our new ways of working optimising the skills of staff and putting all prison officers in prison-facing roles."

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