STAFFING levels at jails across the region has dropped by 34 per cent in three years sparking fears of a crisis.

Revealing a cut in staffing levels of 21 per cent at HMP Eastwood Park and a 28 per cent reduction at HMP Leyhill, the Howard League for Penal Reform says the system is at ‘breaking point'.

The figures, published in the penal reform campaign group's research paper, Breaking point: Understaffing and overcrowding in prisons, show the number of officers at Eastwood Park women’s prison has dropped from 151 to 120 in three years.

Last year the 362-capacity jail in Falfield was slammed for having the fifth worst self-harm rate in women’s prisons across the UK. It was also criticised for having dirty cells and poor kitchen hygiene, although its unit for young female prisoners was judged outstanding in a Chief Inspector of Prisons’ report.

HMP Leyhill, in Tortworth, which will soon house convicted paedophile and shamed children’s television presenter Rolf Harris, has lost 28 per cent of its staff dropping from 69 in 2010 to 50 last year.

In September last year, we reported how the number of serious offenders at the Category D prison had escalated dramatically to more than 40 per cent of Leyhill's population following a change in policy at government level.

Leyhill has a maximum capacity of 527 prisoners and until recently the number of people with life sentences or indeterminate sentences was capped at 120. In 2013, however, the number rose to 200 with the top three crimes listed as sexual and drugs offences and crimes of violence.

Chief executive Frances Crook said the figures, which follow a programme of prison closures including Gloucester Prison last year, showed the prison system was at breaking point.

“Everyone should be concerned at the crisis in prisons as when people come out of jail they are more likely to inflict more crime on us,” she said.

“Ministers and various MPs have used different figures to try to minimise the impact of prison closures, but the statistics in this report show the true picture.

“Governors, inspectors and prison officers are joining the Howard League in warning the government that prisons are not just failing, they are dangerous.

“Violence and drug use is out of control and we will all suffer the consequences. This is the most irresponsible government penal policy in a generation.”

HMP Ashfield in Pucklechurch, which changed from a young offenders’ institution to a Category C sexual offenders’ prison in a controversial move last year, was the only prison in the region to see a rise in staffing numbers, going up from 149 to 155.

Overall in the South West, staffing levels have dropped by 34 per cent drop, from 1,943 in September 2010 to 1,275 in September 2013.

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said modernisation of the system was working.

“Our approach to staffing levels has been agreed with the unions to ensure we run safe, efficient and decent prisons with prison officers back in frontline roles where they are most needed," he said.

“Where there are local staffing issues we are taking action to resolve this, including a widespread recruitment campaign and the creation of a reserve force of officers who can be used nationally when required.

“We are modernising the prison estate to ensure best value for the taxpayer — not by cutting services or reducing quality but by fundamentally changing the way we operate with greater levels of education and purposeful activity as part of our commitment to rehabilitation."