Concerned relatives have slammed the Government for denying that High Down prison is in crisis – insisting that staff shortages are provoking violence as inmates are locked up for all bar 30 minutes a day.
Anonymous relatives said the inmates are being treated worse than dogs, with prisoners only being let outside for fresh air twice in weeks, and sometimes being served cold food in their cells.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has denied information passed to the Epsom Guardian by an anonymous source which claimed that the prison, in High Down Lane, on the border between Sutton and Banstead, is keeping prisoners locked in their cells and out of rehabilitative educational courses because there are not enough staff to supervise them.
The source said that in October last year, more than 50 officers were made redundant and a ‘new regime’ at the prison invoked. But this allegedly failed within a month and a recruitment drive to replenish staff numbers was unsuccessful.
In a statement, the MoJ said: “HMP High Down aims to ensure that each prisoner is out of their cell for a minimum or four hours a day between 8am and 6pm.
“There has been a consistent reduction in prisoner-on-prisoner violence and a reduction on assaults on staff since January 2013.
“There have also been recognised improvements in prisoner safety.
“There are appropriate staffing levels at the prison.”
Epsom’s MP Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, declined to comment when asked about the claims earlier this week.
The Epsom Guardian has received a number of emails regarding the situation at High Down – including one from a serving prison officer – and spoke to three relatives of prisoners this afternoon.
One said: “All that was printed is true. My son is currently awaiting sentence in High Down and has stated they are locked up for 23/24 hrs a day.
“There is no exercise, education or association for days on end as there are not enough staff to oversee the inmates.
"Sometimes they are even given cold food as no one to supervise the kitchen.
“Their personal hygiene is also greatly reduced as not enough staff to monitor washrooms so showers are few and far between.”
She said that “upset and anger” is caused on visit days as relatives can be waiting for up to an hour before the inmates arrive, only to be told, just 30 minutes later, that the visit is finished.
“Several visitors have also witnessed bulling and intimidation and sometimes violence towards inmates by stressed officers,” she added.
The relative said other families of inmates she has spoken to agree: “A lot of people I have spoken to have said this is making inmates restless as they have no structure or routine and some men need this.
“People will not speak out for fear of repercussion to their loved ones currently serving time at High Down so I’m glad that you have raised this topic.
"This is a prison very much in crisis.”
Another relative, of a prisoner who has been on remand in High Down for a month, said the men are experiencing “appalling conditions” and staff shortages have led to violence.
“In the few weeks he has been there, he gets on average 45 minute unlock between 8am and 8.45am then locked up till about 4.30pm. It is at this time he will then get his dinner, but again locked up immediately,” she said.
“They have breakfast and lunch in their cells.
“After three weeks he has also not yet received an induction. Several times he has been scheduled for one, but due to staff shortages, this has not occurred.
“In three weeks, he has been outside for fresh air twice.
“If he were our dog and kept in a locked room for 23 hours a day, we as owners would be liable to prosecution.
“Requests to see doctors are ignored and when the prisoners make an application of complaint nothing happens.
“High Down is its own principality - there appears no right of appeal.
"On the website it looks a modern prison that gives recreation and training opportunities, it has two gyms and a library. My son along with his peers have seen neither.
“The inmates are being told through lack of staff that they are not being allowed out or going to education.
“High Down has around 1,200 men as inmates - these men need to be put to work or into education to help them rehabilitate, not locked up for 23 hours each day.
“There are riots in some cells.
“These people are on remand they have not even been convicted. They have human rights.”
She said she was told by the prison’s visitors’ centre three weeks ago that an extra 200 prisoners had come to the prison and there were not enough staff to manage them.
One man, whose relative has also be on remand for a month, said he is let out of his cell for just 10 minutes a day at the weekends due to a lack of staff.
He said: “He was on a course and he started doing very well. He was about to be offered a job in the prison. But now he hasn’t done the course for the last two weeks.
“Violence between prisoners is quite rare, but two prisoners got beaten up recently by staff.
"They’re not allowing the prisoners out so they get riled up and the staff end up taking it out on the prisoners.”
He said the washing machines at the prison have stopped working in the last week and his relative now washes his clothes in a bucket in his cell and dries them on hot pipes.
The man added: “He gets frustrated that he wants to go out but he has been told that there are staff shortages.”
A woman, whose relative has been on remand in High Down for three weeks, said “riots” were occurring in some cell blocks because prisoners are going “nutty” due to the lack of freedom.
She said: “He is let out of his cell for about 20 minutes each day and he hasn’t been outside for a long time.
“He was on an education programme for a week when he first into there, but after that he has been locked up ever since.
“They told him there are not enough staff.
"Other people from other wings have been doing courses. His wing haven’t been allowed out to do them.
“There are riots in there. Prisoners just throw themselves into the bars and go nutty.
“He is only on remand – he hasn’t even been found guilty.”
She said another prisoner had been beaten up by prison staff and that High Down is rife with drugs.
“They are not allowed to use any of the facilities. He has never seen the library – he’s heard people haven’t used it for months,” the woman added.
A serving prison officer of 26 years contacted the Epsom Guardian, saying that the situation at High Down is indicative of all prisons across the country.
He said: “The crisis at High Down is real as is the same crisis going on in all our prisons. I have never seen it so bad.
“The Government have reduced staffing levels to such an extent forcing every prison to lock down whole wings on a daily basis. In some prisons, two to three wings are locked down at the same time.
“I don't know where the management get their figures, but assaults have increased tenfold since benchmarking was introduced. The prisoner-to-staff ratio is now one to 30, ridiculous.
“When the spokeswoman says assaults have decreased, they fiddle their figures and most go unreported.
“We as a professional body would like an independent investigation into how our prisons are being managed and how much political corruption is involved, trust me, they lie about figures, rehabilitation the lot. It's a total disgrace.
“We can't say anything, our hands are tied.”
Do you know what is going on at High Down? Contact Hardeep Matharu on 020 8722 6346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.