STAFF at Dartmoor Prison, worried about job losses, held an unofficial meeting yesterday (Wednesday) as part of a national protest against government plans to privatise parts of the prison service, writes Wendy Hanwell.

They accused the Government of reneging on its election promise of returning private sector prisons back into the public domain and putting profits before standards.

Their grievances also included market testing of failing prisons, especially Brixton.

The jail's daily regime came to a halt for an hour at 8am after between 60 and 70 prison officers, who had turned up for duty, backed the protest called by the Prison Officers' Association. Most of the 660 inmates remained locked up with just a skeleton team on patrol.

Trevor Horn, branch chairman, said if staffing levels continued to fall, Dartmoor, too, could fail and face a hit squad called in by Deputy Home Secretary Paul Boateng.

He said the jail was 'under the hammer' struggling to maintain standards over the last five years because of budget cuts.

'We called the meeting to protest over the impending civilianisation of the prison's kitchens and works department,' he told the Times.

'We would lose about 13 jobs altogether. We have already suffered staffing cuts on the discipline side with another 14 officer jobs lost and are in a dispute with the governor over staffing levels.'

In the past five years, the category B prison's budget has been cut by £370,000 by the Prison Department, which is Treasury-led.

Mr Horn said: 'We feel this just drives down standards and we will become just one of the warehousing prisons. We felt it was time to make a stand and every member who came on duty showed his support along with other prison staff throughout the country.'

He said Dartmoor Prison had received two good reports in recent years but there was a danger standards would fall if the cuts continued.

'We believe prisons should all be public. The Government should not be making profits out of prisons. One could cynically say this could lead to more people in prison in order to make more profit.'

The Governor's office at Dartmoor Prison refused to comment on the situation.

But Prison Service Director General, Martin Narey, condemned the protest, saying: 'I am extremely disappointed with the POA's foolish decision to hold unauthorised meetings in prisons. Those who have not gone to work this morning will have their pay stopped.

'I am pleased that early indications show that this action does not have widespread support.'

Mr Narey said if the action was repeated, he would have no hesitation in seeking a High Court injunction.

'The POA's actions have occurred at a time when we were close to transforming our industrial relations,' he said.

He hoped to be in a position later this month to recommend to the Home Secrteary that a new disputes procedure should be formally agreed.

'I no longer feel able to make that recommendation. The market testing of Brixton Prison is going ahead and, as I told the POA conference in April, market tests are inevitable.'