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THIS week the chief inspector of prisons warned that acute overcrowding and staff shortages are fuelling increasing suicide rates among Britain’s prisoners. BEN LEO speaks exclusively to a serving officer at Lewes Prison who alleges dilapidated staff numbers at the Sussex jail are sparking rife drug use, all-time low morale and a dangerous working environment for under-pressure officers.

A SERVING prison officer at HMP Lewes claims up to 20 staff are off with stress-related sickness as the jail tries to operate safely amid staff cuts and threats of violence.

Kim Lennon, 47 from Lewes, said she fears for her and her colleagues’ safety as government cuts have left the prison in a “rocky” state and demoralised staff feeling helpless, tired and overworked.

She spoke exclusively to The Argus on the same day that chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick revealed a rapid rise in prisoner suicide rates were down to overcrowding and staff shortages.

Ms Lennon, who is currently signed-off from work with stress, said drug use at Lewes was “rife” as there were not enough officers to ensure banned substances did not find their way past security.

She said: “At Lewes there’s a particular drug called Spice, synthetic cannabis, which is everywhere. It can’t be detected in urine tests and it’s being brought in by visitors or being thrown over the walls.

“The visitor’s hall has a good camera system. It’s excellent – but it’s been broken now for a few years and they said they haven’t got enough money to fix it. They said even if it was fixed they wouldn’t have the staff to watch the cameras.

“We’ve not got enough staff to look after prisoners properly.

“They are becoming extremely frustrated and frontline officers are in danger. Staff are doing more jobs than ever before and there’s fewer of us.

“The good thing about Lewes is it has always had good staff-prisoner relationships, and we’re known for that. But it’s rocky at the moment, and Lewes has never ever been rocky.”

On Tuesday, Mr Hardwick claimed staff shortages and overcrowding was fuelling a rise in suicides among UK inmates.

In the year to March 2014, 88 people committed suicide in prisons throughout England and Wales – a rise of 41% on the previous 12 months.

Ministry of Justice statistics show there have been ten suicides at Lewes since 2003, including three in 2012 – the same number recorded at Manchester’s notorious Strangeways prison, which is nearly twice the size of Lewes.

Ms Lennon, who has worked at Lewes for ten years, said she felt there was a stigma against staff who sought help after discovering the bodies of suicidal prisoners, as it could show a sign of weakness.

She said: “I discovered somebody who had killed themselves during a night shift in 2007. I will remember his name forever. It will always remain with me. As an officer it is part of the job but there is a stigma if you ask for counselling.

“Staff are also getting threatened on a daily basis with physical violence at Lewes. Recently, I was threatened three times by different prisoners in just one month. One of them was brought in from another prison where he assaulted two officers there – including a female.

“Another prisoner, who is dangerous and who has also assaulted staff, discovered where I live. I put reports to security about him after he talked about my home.”

Ministry of Justice figures reveal assaults against prison staff have also risen by 10 % in the past year.

Since 2000, 264 separate incidents of ass-aults on staff have been recorded in Lewes Prison – averaging more than one-and-a-half incidents a month.

However, an ex-prison officer of 30 years fears a prison officer could soon be killed if government cuts continue to affect the prison service.

Bob Charles, who worked in Brixton and Exeter prisons, said: “The service has got rid of 30% of staff in the last two years alone. Even with the 30% it was hard enough because they were not replacing staff who left.

“Now they are having to deal with more prisoners with a lot less staff it is causing an increase in prisoner-on-prisoner abuse, weapon-making, drug use and more people aren’t being searched.

“Because of staff cuts, prisoners are spending longer in their hot cells, they’re getting wound up and when they do finally come out, look for fights to vent their anger.

“It is all down to money. It started with Maggie Thatcher and her government and slowed down for a while, but the decline sped up again until Blair’s government and the coalition.

“I think it is a bad accident waiting to happen. Staff could end up getting killed soon. I would also bet on a major riot soon too.”

In a damning report published this week by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, government investigators concluded that the death of a 24-year-old prisoner, who was transferred to the Isle of Wight from Lewes Prison, was an “unfortunate consequence” of overcrowding.

The prisoner became distressed when he learned he was being moved from Lewes as the new prison was a long way from his friends and family.

He hanged himself shortly after arriving at the Isle of Wight.

Paul Laxton, former deputy governor at Lewes Prison, said austerity measures there were “just starting to show” when he worked there from 2007 to 2009.

He added: “The problem is that there are increasingly less staff and more prisoners that are becoming even more and more demanding.

“Suicide rates are up and that is a direct result of fewer staff. Prisoners are spending longer in their cells, there aren’t enough officers to see to them all and both staff and prisoners become affected. Chris Grayling [Justice Secretary] thinks doubling up prisoners in rooms is not overcrowding, but when you have an extra man wanting to use the library, the toilet, and there’s more staff needed to supervise these visits, it becomes a problem.

“The writing was on the wall in small writing when I was at Lewes, although it was still a reasonably comfortable place to work back then but it is becoming harder and harder now.”

Talking of current serving Lewes prison officer Kim Lennon, Mr Laxton said: “I worked with Kim Lennon when I was deputy governor and the prison service is in her blood.

“Like the rest of the staff at Lewes and prisons across the country she likes to see things done properly and gets very demoralised when they are not.

“She won’t be alone in her feelings about how the government is affecting the prison service.

“She has come forward because she cares and wants to see changes for the better. I think I got out at the right time because it won’t get any better soon until the Government wakes up. I sometimes wonder if it needs another Strangeways-style riot or major incident before the politicians take notice.”

A Prison Service spokesman said independent inspectors recently described HMP Lewes as a “safe, decent and respectful” prison – and praised the “positive relationships between prisoners and staff”. He added: “Staffing levels at the prison are safe, and sensible and proportionate measures have been taken to manage the recent national increase in the prison population. We have a zero-tolerance approach to any illicit substances – including Spice – and use a range of robust measures to find them, including searches, specially trained dogs and random drugs tests. CCTV at the prison is also fully functional.

“Anyone caught with such substances will be dealt with severely and can be referred to the police for prosecution.”

LEWES is a category B male prison which mainly holds people from Sussex.

It holds adult convicted criminals and suspects on remand for whom “the very highest conditions of security are not necessary, but for whom escape must be made very difficult”.

It was used as a young offenders’ prison during the 1940s and 1950s and briefly became a borstal.

It houses more than 740 prisoners. The majority of cells are shared but some are single.

LAST year, The Argus reported how inspectors condemned Lewes Prison for not doing enough to get prisoners working.

The report revealed almost two-fifths of the prison population spent the working day in their cells.

Chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick said at the time: “The lack of progress in getting prisoners into meaningful work is disappointing.

“The area of greatest concern remains the provision of purposeful activity.

“Time out of cell was limited and affected by the prison’s failure to deliver daily its own published timetable.

“We found just under two-fifths of the population locked up doing nothing during the working part of the day. This was in part due to the lack of activity for them, but was worsened, inexcusably, because not all the available activity places were used. The range of education was adequate but teaching needed improvement and there was too little vocational training. Much of the work on offer was mundane and menial.”

THE damning report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman on prison suicide rates comes just two years after three men hanged themselves at Lewes prison.

The three men all hanged themselves and sparked a prison service inquiry into the way suicide and self harm was handled at the site. Following the deaths bosses at the prison were criticised by inspectors for “notable deficiencies” in training.

On July 1, 2012, Colin Morton was found hanged after being convicted of 14 counts of sex offences against children.

The 69-year-old, of Manor Road, Hastings, had taken his own life.

Just a few weeks later, Nathan Vaughan-Jones, 34, was also discovered dead in the prison.

In March earlier that year he had been jailed for 11 years after admitting manslaughter. He had stabbed his stepfather to death outside his South Chailey home.

Three days after the death of Vaughan-Jones, ex-police officer Peter Foster, who murdered his partner Heather Cooper and dumped her body in woodland near Petworth, was also found dead in the prison.

Weeks earlier the 36-year-old had admitted murder and perverting the cause of justice and had been handed a life sentence.

Two years earlier, in 2010, Tony Couchman, from Hastings, died after slashing his wrists in Lewes. He was awaiting trial, having been charged with the murder of his daughter Victoria.