The prison system is reaching breaking point, according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the UK’s oldest prison reform charity which has claimed staff numbers at High Down have been cut by nearly 30 per cent in three years.

Last week, the Howard League for Penal Reform published a report, Breaking Point: Understaffing and Overcrowding in Prisons, containing figures showing the number of prison officers in the South East has been cut by 36 per cent since 2010.

The report said that although there were 4,410 prison officers working in the region’s prisons in September 2010, this fell to 2,821 by September 2013.

According to the charity’s report, High Down prison, in Banstead - about which a number of concerns, including staff shortages, have been raised with this newspaper - had 260 prisoners in September 2010 and  just 190 in September 2013 - a 27 per cent decrease.

As of last month, the prison still had 28 vacancies for full-time posts which it has not yet filled and temporary staff are still at High Down.

The Howard League for Penal Reform said the fall in prison officer numbers has coincided with a "deepening prison overcrowding crisis" and an alarming rise in the number of suicides in prison. 

Frances Crook, the charity’s chief executive, said: "The prison system is at breaking point. 

"Governors, inspectors and prison officers are joining the Howard League in warning the Government prisons are not just failing, they are dangerous.

"This is the most irresponsible government penal policy in a generation."

Your Local Guardian: The latest independent report into High Down prison raises serious concerns over staff shortages and prisoners' rehabilitation

Days before the charity published its report, Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, who grew up in Banstead, said there has been a significant deterioration in prison standards and said some of the conditions inside prisons now are "deplorable".

He told the BBC: "Since the beginning of the year, our inspection findings have dropped significantly.

"And I go to most of these inspections and I see with my own eyes a deterioration.

"They are an indication of wider problems in the Prison Service, an indication of a prison system under growing pressure."

In response to the figures published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, Jeremy Wright, Prisons Minister, said: "These figures present a misleading picture.

"Our approach to staffing levels has been agreed with the unions to ensure we run safe, efficient and decent prisons with prison officers back in frontline roles where they are most needed.

"Where there are local staffing issues we are taking action to resolve this, including a widespread recruitment campaign and the creation of a reserve force of officers who can be used nationally when required."

A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesman said the Howard League for Penal Reform's figures do not compare like for like: "They have compared the headcount of all officer grades in September 2010 with the full-time equivalent of only prison officer grade, Band 3 and officer specialists, in September 2013."

When asked how an "informative opening evening", held on June 17 at High Down, went and what information attendees were given - an event which was advertised by the MoJ in this newspaper but gave no details as to how people could sign-up for it - the MoJ said: "24 people attended a successful informative evening about the prison."

To find out what conditions are like inside High Down prison, chief reporter Hardeep Matharu, went down to the prison last week to meet people visiting inmates who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Visits don’t start on time.  We’ve been told it’s because there are shortages in staff."

"We have got people in there who are talented and could be encouraged to do more.  It’s all being utterly wasted.

"They do need a routine in there and when it keeps getting broken it’s very damaging so what’s the point?"

"If the person running a workshop is away it’s closed for 2-3 weeks and there’s no one to fill in the space.  It’s ridiculous.  Small things have a massive impact."

"Sometimes they are forgotten to be unlocked for work.  So you stay locked up even if it's not your fault."

"Some prison officers have said to visitors ‘you’ve told us more than we have been told’.  It’s wrong.  Prison officers are in a difficult position."

"A lot of people don’t complain for fear of retribution.  And it is wrong.  But something could happen to them."

"It’s a good prison from what he’s told me.  It sounds luxurious."

"There are people in there who are intelligent and want to do things as they have done their whole lives.  At the other end you have couch potatoes.  They are the ones who need to be targeted.  They need to be cajoled into doing something and be offered carrots.  There’s a way to tap into something with everyone.  They need the patience and the staff to do this."

To read the Howard League for Penal Reform's report in full, click here.

Do you know someone inside High Down prison?  Contact Hardeep Matharu on 020 8722 6346 or by emailing


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