An elite group of specially-trained prison officers had to be deployed to jails in England and Wales 580 times last year, new figures show.
Members of the crack National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) were sent to incidents ranging from the full-scale riot that gripped Birmingham’s Winson Green jail, to hostage situations, and “incidents at height”.
Figures released by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) after an Freedom of Information request by the Press Association show the tempo of call-outs to prisons has increased year-on-year.
The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said the data showed the “reality” of prisons needing national support “to maintain security and control” after what it claimed were “year-on-year budget cuts”.
Labour claimed the data underlined “counter-productive” cuts to the prison service under the Conservative Government which had led to “an epidemic of violence” in the country’s jails.
But the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the “majority” of the deployments were to non-violent incidents, and often precautionary.
In 2010, the NTRG squad were called to jails 118 times in total, but in 2014 there were 223 call-outs. In 2015 it had risen to more than 340.
The 40-strong squad had already been deployed 110 times from January to April this year – the most recent figures available.
Those incidents include occasions of “concerted indiscipline”, “barricade” events and “incidents at height”, which can mean anything from prisoners on a cell-block’s anti-suicide netting to inmates on an internal roof.
During their busiest month in May 2016, the NTRG were sent out 67 separate times to 39 different jails, dealing with inmate disorder, hostage events and incidents at height, among others.
In the case of two jails; HMP Lindholme in Doncaster and HMP Nottingham, the specialists had to be called in nearly every month of that year.
Separately, figures showed deployments of the so-called Tornado teams – which are separate to NTRG – happened 19 times last year.
That figure compared to 15 occasions in 2015 and seven call-outs in 2010.
The teams were sent in to the Birmingham prison riot and disorder at other jails, but also as back-up for “lock-down searches” or when in October 2016, there was an “escape”, from HMP Haverigg in Cumbria.
In the seven months to July this year, Tornado squads had been sent to 10 incidents.
Of those, eight alone happened in the July, involving HMP Humber in Yorkshire, HMP Hewell near Redditch in Worcestershire, HMP Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, HMP Erlestoke in Wiltshire, and HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire.
The MoJ stressed Tornado squads, numbering about 2,000 personnel and made up of specially-trained teams drawn from jails nationally, are not just sent in to tackle violent incidents.
They can be deployed as a visible presence when dealing with large numbers of inmates or when a prisoner gets on a roof.
The highest-profile incident the elite teams have had to tackle was last December’s riot at Winson Green prison, which saw hundreds of additional prison officers called in to help wrest back control.
However, the figures do not include more recent problems with disorder, including trouble at high-security HMP Long Lartin jail in Worcestershire in October, where Tornado teams were confronted by several dozen inmates.
Commenting on the figures, the Prison Officers’ Association said: “The POA are not shocked by the numbers of call-outs as this demonstrates that prisons are in need of national support to maintain security and control.
“However, the figures can be distorted due to some call-outs requiring nationally-trained staff. The reality is that year-on-year budget cuts has reduced staff and as a result prisoners feel more in charge as organised crime continues to increase.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “These figures underline how counter-productive the Tories’ cuts to the prison service have been.
This dangerous situation is likely to go from bad to worse given that a quarter of the prisons that the MoJ itself rates as being of concern have experienced a further cut in prison officer numbers over the past year.”
An MoJ spokesman said: “We have specially trained teams that provide support to prisons on a range of incidents – from offenders climbing onto an internal roof to a large scale disturbance. The majority of call outs are for non-violent incidents when the officers only attend as a precaution or when the situation was already resolved by prison staff.”
The MoJ previously announced the recruitment of 2,500 extra prison officers and security measures to tackle the problem of drones, organised crime in jails, and smuggling of contraband.