Revealed: Just one in five prisons have enough riot officers in ‘scandalous’ shortage

Four in five prisons are failing to meet their Operation Tornado quota, analysis by The Independent shows (Getty/iStock)
Four in five prisons are failing to meet their Operation Tornado quota, analysis by The Independent shows (Getty/iStock)

Nearly four in five prisons do not have enough officers trained to deal with riots as part of so-called “Tornado” squads, despite rising violence and disorder behind bars, The Independent can reveal.

With the prisons crisis a major concern ahead of the general election, prison officers responded to the revelations by accusing Rishi Sunak’s government of having “gambled with safety” – as former governors warned that the ability to respond to simultaneous riots at multiple jails could be “fatally compromised”.

Figures reveal a shortage of riot-trained officers as part of the mutual aid Tornado programme, which aims to control disorder inside a prison before it escalates. The “scandalous” shortfall was first revealed just weeks ago by this publication, as the government admitted Tornado numbers had plummeted by nearly a third in five years.

Just 1,620 Tornado officers were in place across the prison estate as of February, down from 2,310 in 2018, prisons minister Edward Argar previously admitted in response to a parliamentary question by his Labour counterpart Ruth Cadbury.

While ministers claimed in March that there was “no minimum staffing requirement for Tornado teams”, further questions from Labour saw Mr Argar admit that the government “aims to have 2,100 volunteers trained in readiness for Operation Tornado” – as he revealed each prison’s recommended Tornado officer quota.

Laying bare the scale of the crisis, analysis by The Independent of the newly released figures suggests that just 23 out of 109 prisons with a Tornado quota had enough riot-trained officers as of February.

Of the 86 prisons without enough officers, some of the most dire shortages were at HMP Five Wells and the now-closed Cookham Wood – each of which had zero of a recommended 18 Tornado officers – and Swaleside, which was 15 short. General staff shortages meant all three prisons were reliant on officers loaned from other jails – a scheme that cost the taxpayer £16.2m last year.

Wakefield was among the worst, having just 22 out of a recommended 36 Tornado officers, despite being among several northern prisons forced to loan their officers to other jails to “paper over the cracks” caused by the staffing crisis – a process that is hampering staff access to training courses, including for Operation Tornado.

The government has been relying on the goodwill of prison officers for far too long, a union warns (Getty/iStock)
The government has been relying on the goodwill of prison officers for far too long, a union warns (Getty/iStock)

Wormwood Scrubs – where “chronic staff shortages” have been blamed for soaring violence and drug use – was 18 shy of its recommended 31 Tornado officers, while Wetherby – which has among the worst rates of violence in the youth prison estate – had just one out of a recommended 18.

The latest figures were revealed as former chief inspector Nick Hardwick expressed fears that “we are very close to the conditions prior to the 1990 riots in Strangeways”, telling The Times: “It’s a dangerous time. You’ve got a general level of frustration, so if you get a spark, that’s when stuff will kick off.”

Accusing ministers of “gambling with safety”, Prison Officers’ Association chief Steve Gillan told The Independent that his union had been raising the alarm over the “extremely concerning” shortage of Tornado volunteers for some time.

Warning that there is no real difference between the rates of pay for Operation Tornado and for duties such as accompanying prisoners to hospital, Mr Gillan said: “I am afraid they have been relying on the goodwill of officers for far too long, and sometimes you reap what you sow.”

Mr Argar stressed that Tornado teams are a shared resource that allow prisons to support one another when there is a serious incident that requires reinforcement, adding:There are no prisons without access to Tornado support.

But former prison governor and Tornado section commander Ian Acheson warned that most high-security prisons would not be in a position to support each other in the event of sustained disorder.

“Given current conditions in our jails, the fact we haven’t had widespread indiscipline that these severely depleted numbers of volunteers would be unable to cope with is more a matter of luck than skill,” said Mr Acheson. “And of course, the easy availability of illicit drugs helps keep the lid on, while wrecking rehabilitation.”

Tornado training stopped during the pandemic, creating a backlog, according to the Prison Governors’ Association (Getty)
Tornado training stopped during the pandemic, creating a backlog, according to the Prison Governors’ Association (Getty)

Tom Wheatley, who was in charge at HMP Wandsworth prior to becoming chief of the Prison Governors’ Association in March, said Tornado numbers had improved since February, with more Tornado control-and-restraint training capacity “being pushed out now than there ever has been”.

Despite so many prisons being far short of their Tornado quota, Mr Wheatley said volunteers are now trained in a way that means they can quickly gel with officers from other prisons to make up the required unit of 14 Tornado officers, whereas in the past a single prison was required to send either a full or a half unit.

But with the wider staffing and retention crisis leaving understaffed prisons reliant on officers loaned from other jails, Mr Wheatley noted that this can further eat into the number of officers available to respond to a Tornado call-up.

“The reason for all of this is really Covid,” he said. “During the pandemic, we stopped all that training – it just ceased, and it’s on an annual refresher basis... so we’re still working through the backlog from that period, but it is being taken seriously.”

Ms Cadbury, the shadow prisons minister, said the “shocking” Tornado figures are “part of the wider picture that simply shows that our prison estate is in utter crisis”, adding: “With violence surging in our prisons and assaults on staff increasing, we know that there is a significant risk of serious disorder in our prisons.

“Even the justice secretary has admitted the risks of riots in our prisons – yet has still failed to prepare. 14 years of Conservative rule has left our prisons in chaos.”

Mr Argar said: “The safety of our staff and prisoners is our priority which is why we’re bolstering our Tornado teams by training more than 800 staff this year to deal with serious incidents. This is on top of our £100m investment into tough security measures to clamp down on violence and improve safety.”