STAFF at Lewes prison walked out at 7am today as part of a national protest over safety.

It comes after a damning report warned of a "dangerous lack of control" at HMP Bedford, a union said.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has urged prison staff to return to their duties.

And relatives have reportedly been turned away at the gates after all visits to the prison were cancelled.

Staff at Lewes say they are supporting their colleagues up and down the country amid a rapid decline in prison health and safety standards.

Hearings at Lewes Crown Court collpased today with prisoners unable to appear by video link or be transported to the courtrooms.

Members of the POA, the trade union for prison staff, have been asked to demonstrate outside prisons in England and Wales "until instructed otherwise".

It follows a report on Thursday from Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke, who raised the alarm over the potential for a "complete breakdown" in order and discipline at the Bedfordshire prison.

Inmates have effectively taken control at the violent, overcrowded and vermin-infested jail, his report has warned.

POA General Secretary Steve Gillan said the majority of prison officers would be outside prisons in car parks in protest against the "unprecedented decline in health and safety standards over past 6 years".

He told the Press Association: "We are coming out in protest to bring attention, under health and safety legislation, to the Government, to the general public, about conditions in our prisons for both prisoners and my members, of the rise in violence, the rise in drugs, the self-harm and everything that goes with it."

Mr Gillan went on: "Under legislation the Government and employer have a duty of care toward my members, and I'm fed up of hearing of my members receiving smashed eye sockets, broken arms, broken legs, broken jaws, being attacked, spat on, having excrement and urine thrown at them, and enough is enough now.

"We need ministers to start taking control of what's going on."

But some visitors to the prison have said they were turned away at the gates this morning without warning, having got up early and spent money to travel to see their loved ones.

Pamela Stockwell posted on Twitter: "Spent £40 and got up at 5.30 to travel to HMP Lewes for visit.

"Arrived to find visits cancelled. Why was no warning given? Who will compensate me? I am 79yrs old and not a criminal. HMP has my phone no & email address but no-one bothered."

Sarah Jane Baker posted on Twitter: "All visits cancelled at HMP Lewes today.

"Visitors turned away at the door.

"Many left home at 5.30am, spent a small fortune on train & taxi fares to see their loved ones.

"My thoughts are with anyone, both sides of the gate, whose visit was cancelled. It hurts."

The protest caused chaos for the courts, as trials and hearings had to be cancelled because defendants in custody could not be brought to court or appear in video links.

At Lewes Crown Court, Judge Christine Laing QC saw a sentencing hearing collapse, and said the action had caught the courts by surprise.

She said: “It is news to us. Our list officer was told, for reasons not made clear, that the video link booths would not be manned at Lewes Prison today.

“Therefore we cannot do video link hearings. Officers have made what efforts they can to get defendants onto vans and into court.

“I am going to take this up with the prison governor, we had no warning. It is a waste of everybody’s time.”

Hearings had to be rearranged for times when all parties could be available at the same time, including judges, prosecution and defence barristers, police officers, witnesses, and defendants.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said in a statement: "Prison officers do vital and important work and we urge them to return to their duty stations, in line with their obligations to the law and the prison service.  “It’s irresponsible for the POA to encourage their members to take this illegal action.

"We are deploying our contingency plans but, by not turning up for work, these prison officers are putting their fellow staff and inmates at risk.

“Yesterday we doubled the prison sentence for anyone who assaults prison officers.

"We’ve also increased pay, provided tools such as body-worn cameras to increase security on the landings, and are investing £40m to improve the estate and tackle the drugs problem which is fuelling much of the violence.

"And we’ve now got 3,500 new officers to help ease the burden.

“We are taking the action that needs to be taken.”

It said it has 20,000 members in England and Wales.