VOTE: Concerns over villagers’ safety in wake of New Years Day riots at Ford Open Prison

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Concerns about villagers’ safety has led Ford’s councillors to demand an urgent meeting with the government in the wake of the New Year’s Day riots at Ford Open Prison.

Parish council chairman Paul James has contacted prisons minister Crispin Blunt to call for the discussion and hopes the council would be heavily involved in any discussions as outcomes would have a massive effect on the community.

“We have never had any problems on this scale with the prison before,” Mr James said.

The worries follow the serious disturbances at the prison when some 40 balaclava-clad prisoners torched buildings in protest at a clampdown on illegal drinking.

Inmates went on the rampage about midnight, smashing windows and setting buildings ablaze to cause an estimated £3m damage.

Firefighters were unable to prevent accommodation blocks, a mail room, a gymnasium, a snooker room and a pool room, including ten newly-installed tables, being destroyed by the fires.

Specialist prison officers in riot gear were drafted in from across the country to restore order. But it took 22 hours before the disturbance was successfully subdued just after 10pm on New Year’s Day.

Council vice-chairman Mark Bentley said the authority was concerned at the news just two officers and four support staff were on duty at the prison of some 500 inmates when the rioting began.

It also wants reassurance appropriate prisoners were at Ford and the problem of alcohol being smuggled into the prison was being tackled.

“While there have been no significant problems caused in the community by the prison prior to this incident, we have been receiving reports of the smuggling of alcohol into the premises over an extended period of time.

“Members of the public who have told us about this say they have eventually become tired of repeatedly reporting this to the authorities only to see no action taken.”

Eyewitness Sarah Neville, 35, of Ford Road, has lived in the village for 30 years.

She said: “Sometimes we forget the prison is even there. Then something like this happens and it becomes a reality. You begin to realise what having a prison on your doorstep really means.

“We went outside and could see smoke billowing from the site.”

A public meeting is set to be held by MP Nick Gibb to enable residents to have their say about Ford Open Prison when the inquiries into the weekend’s violence have been finished.

He said: “We need to ensure the prison is safe and the appalling events of the new year are never repeated.”

The MP also drew attention to the 2008 and 2009 reports by the chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, which highlighted problems such as poor supervision of the perimeter fence, alcohol being smuggled in and the suitability of accommodation.

Mark Freeman, the deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, said alcohol had been a concern at the jail for some time and around 40 empty bottles had been found at the weekend.

Sarah Neville added it was common to see black bags left outside the prison and prisoners picking them up soon after.

“My children have seen men walking around with black bags and just dropping them on the ground and walking away,” she said.