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HMP Ashwell

Volume 491: debated on Monday 20 April 2009

A serious disturbance involving over 400 prisoners took place at HMP Ashwell, near Oakham in Rutland on Saturday 11 April. HMP Ashwell is a category C training prison. HMP Ashwell was originally an open prison fenced to upgrade it to category C in the 1980s. The older part of the prison held 425 prisoners in non-cellular; the rooms the prisoners were held in do not have bars or grille gates to secure them. The newer part of the prison held 194 prisoners in cellular accommodation. The disturbance was entirely within the insecure old prison site. The cellular accommodation was not damaged and is still in use.

The disturbance began at 01.00 am and ended at 10.45 pm on the same day. The Silver Command suite at the prison and the Gold Command suite at NOMS HQ in London, which can quickly call on national resources to handle serious incidents, was swiftly opened, and Ministers were informed.

The incident started with a young prisoner, aged 22 serving a three-year sentence, confronting staff and when ordered to return to his room refusing and beginning to cause damage and being joined by others. This quickly escalated. Staff initially secured the office and then evacuated from the old part of the prison. No member of staff was injured or directly attacked. Once staff had withdrawn, the damage continued with fires lit and fittings and fabric smashed and damaged.

Riot trained prison officers were called out and the police very promptly secured the perimeter. Intervention did not take place because there was no available accommodation in which to secure the perpetrators. Instead escort vans were directed to the prison and a planned removal of 424 prisoners to 26 other prisons took place during the afternoon and evening of Saturday 11 April. This was a well executed operation with a final sweep of the prison by riot trained officers identifying and removing the three remaining prisoners who had not come forward to be evacuated.

The incident finished at around 10.30 pm when all prisoners were accounted for. No staff were injured or directly attacked and there were minor injuries to only three prisoners.

The damage done to three of the old wings appears to be substantial although the rest of the prison is either undamaged or sustained superficial damage.

The Gold Command suite at NOMS headquarters in London remained open until 2.30 am on 12 April to double check that all named individual prisoners transferred out were accounted for and to verify that the roll at Ashwell, as confirmed by the Governor at 10.30 pm, was correct.

The events at Ashwell are now the subject of a police investigation and a large proportion of the site remains a crime scene. There is a continuing prison service investigation, which will be scrutinised by a committee of the corporate management board of the Ministry of Justice and by Ministers, who will consider what further action needs to be taken. I will make the findings of the investigation and our conclusions on it available to the House in due course.

At the time of the disturbance Ashwell held 611 prisoners against its operational capacity of 619.

There was a full complement of night staff on duty. There have been no recent reductions in operational staffing levels or reductions to regime.

There has been speculation that the prison held prisoners other than category C. This was not the case. All the prisoners in Ashwell were assessed as category C prisoners.

This disturbance was brought to a conclusion by the skill and courage of a wide range of committed professionals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already publicly thanked not only the National Offender Management Service staff at Ashwell, at the establishments who provided “Tornado” (riot trained prison officers) support and those prisons who received prisoners at short notice, but also national resources, escort services and colleagues who staffed the Gold and Silver Command suites. Thanks have also gone to the local Police and Fire Services and to staff at Leicester Royal Infirmary. My noble Friend Lord Bach visited the site on Saturday evening and I visited HMP Ashwell on Sunday 12 April. We were both most impressed with the work already under way to deal with the impact of the incident.

The public should be re-assured that on the rare occasions when incidents such as this happen, there are such professional and dedicated staff from many agencies acting to protect them. The incident at HMP Ashwell was well managed and the public were not put at risk; no prisoners escaped and no staff were injured.