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Specialist riot squad sent into prison twice a day on average, data reveal

The National Tactical Response Group is dubbed the prison system's SAS
The National Tactical Response Group is dubbed the prison system's SAS - PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A specialist prison riot squad was sent into jails the equivalent of more than twice a day last year, data has revealed.

Described by some as the prison system’s SAS, the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) was deployed into prisons in England and Wales 794 times last year – an increase of nearly 40 per cent on the 2022 total of 570.

The figures, revealed by the Labour Party in a series of written questions to the Government, are a “damning testament” to how ministers have managed the prison estate, the Labour said.

The NTRG is trained to intervene in dangerous, high-risk circumstances such as riots.

They are routinely armed with pepper spray, smoke bombs and batons, and wear flame-proof uniforms, stab-proof vests and armoured gloves.

Local prison riot squads, known as Tornado Teams, were deployed 13 times last year – up from nine in 2022 and four in 2021.

These teams, separate to the NTRG, provide extra support to bring riots under control, and are normally made up of 50 officers.

Riot police on the roof of a building during an incident at the YOI in Portland, Dorset
Riot police on the roof of a building during an incident at the YOI in Portland, Dorset - Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Armed with batons and shields, the members undergo four months of training.

One team was deployed to restore order at HMP Swaleside in Kent in 2022 after 35 prisoners rioted, as well as in 2017 when nearly 80 prisoners, some armed with pool balls, rioted at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire.

The rise in deployments comes amid increases in prison violence in a near-full estate.

Prisons in England and Wales are at about 99 per cent capacity, according to the latest figures, with statistics showing there were 23,000 assaults in 2023 – up from more than 20,500 the previous year.

Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “These squads are trained to deal with the most serious disorder and violence in the prison estate.

“The shocking rise in the number of deployments is a damning testament to the failure to manage our prisons and the miserable impact of 14 years of Tory rule on our criminal justice system.

Edward Argar, the prisons minister, says not using the NTRG raising risk of serious injury
Edward Argar, the prisons minister, says not using the NTRG raising risk of serious injury - UK Parliament/PA

“The Conservatives are putting the public at risk by losing control of our prisons. Prisoners are running riot and offenders are leaving prison more dangerous than when they arrived.

“Prisons should be clean, decent places, safe for staff and prisoners alike. Only Labour will get a grip of our prison system.”

Edward Argar, the prisons minister,  said the NTRG is “a highly trained team that provide expertise in technical interventions that would carry higher risk of failure or injury, and which require skills and equipment limited only to NTRG staff”.

Responding to Labour’s questions, he said Operation Tornado allows prisons to “support one another in the event of a serious incident or occurrence requiring a reinforcement of staff”, including riots and high-risk prisoner transfers.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Violence is never tolerated in prisons which is why specialist staff will attend incidents where appropriate to maintain good order.

“We have also invested £100 million in tough security measures including X-ray body scanners to clamp down on issues which fuel violence behind bars.”