The Prisons Minister has accused a leading prison reform charity of "deliberately misleading the public" after it released figures showing that prison officers at jails, including High Down, have been cut by more than 40 per cent in less than four years.

This week, the Howard League for Penal Reform published research which it said showed there were only 14,170 prison officers working in prisons run by the Government at the end of June - compared to more than 24,000 at the end of August 2010.

In London, it said officer numbers have been cut from nearly 2,600 to 1,640, with a 42-per cent drop in staff at High Down prison in Banstead, over the last four years.

It said the prison system was in crisis with prisoner numbers up and prison staff axed in droves "without any thought for the consequences".

But Prisons Minister Andrew Selous insisted prisons are well run and less overcrowded than at any time over the past decade - although he admitted there were "temporary staff shortages" caused, he said, by an improvement in the labour market.

A number of relatives and friends of inmates at High Down have contacted the Epsom Guardian since the start of this year to raise concerns about conditions inside the prison including prisoners being locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and not being able to attend rehabilitation classes - the reason for which, they have been told, is staff shortages. The Ministry of Justice has denied these claims.

In April, the prison’s governor Ian Bickers told this newspaper, on a visit to the prison, that the prisoner-to-officer ratio was 1:30. It had 130 prison officers, down from 185 from the February before.

According to the Howard League's research, there were 260 prison officers at High Down in August 2010, down to 150 in June this year.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "The prison system is in crisis, and these figures reveal why.

"While the prison population has grown, officer numbers have been cut without any thought for the consequences.

"A shortage of governors makes matters even worse, because officers are being taken off the wings and asked to ‘act up’ to fill vacancies.

"Having made prison officers redundant, the Ministry of Justice is now apparently struggling to recruit. These are desperate times, and ministers are resorting to desperate measures.

"Last week, the outgoing president of the Prison Governors’ Association revealed that officers were being shipped from the north to plug gaps in the south, and being put up in hotels at a cost of £500 per week each.

"I understand that this arrangement is being built into long-term planning.

"Nobody knows how much it will cost, so the government is writing itself a blank cheque.

"As well as being a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money, this approach will only create more disruption in jails.

"Good relationships between prisoners and staff are key to a well-run prison, and such relationships will be harder to achieve.

"Prison officers must respond to emergencies, and it is potentially disastrous to ask lowly-paid staff, demoralised and far from home, to work in different, unfamiliar prisons each week.

"The only solution to this crisis is one that successive governments have ducked.

"There are many people in custody who have not committed serious or violent offences and it is time for a hard look at who we send to prison and why. We must reduce the prison population."

But Mr Selous said: "It's beyond me why the Howard League go out of their way to deliberately mislead the public on the state of our prisons.

"They are less overcrowded than they have been for a decade and they are well-run, due to the dedication of the hard-working staff in them.

"Consistently trying to claim otherwise helps no one.

"We have seen a rapid improvement in the labour market in the South East, which has led to temporary staff shortages in some prisons.

"However, we are conducting an ongoing recruitment campaign and establishing a reserve force of staff who can be called on when needed."

The figures used for the charity’s research were obtained from statistical releases from the Ministry of Justice.

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