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Prison officers on a day of protest against deteriorating working conditions in UK jails have been ordered to resume their duties after the government won an emergency High Court injunction declaring their action unlawful.

The protest, due to last until midnight on Tuesday, aims to highlight rising violence among inmates and falling staff numbers. The Prison Officers’ Association said the 10,000 members taking part would come to work but would provide only emergency cover to protect prisoners’ wellbeing.

However, since prison officers are technically forbidden from striking, the Ministry of Justice argued in court that the union should be prevented from “inducing any form of industrial action”.

Daniel Stilitz QC, for the ministry, told the judge that the POA was “liable as a trade union for its unlawful inducement”.

Stuart Brittenden, counsel for the union, countered that the secretary of state was in breach of her contract in “failing to provide a safe place and a system of work”, and as such, “any instruction to them to continue working in those conditions in this environment is an unlawful one”.

Trials have been suspended in courts across the country due to defendants not being transferred from custody to court. One of the cases affected concerns the killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox days before the EU referendum. The jury had been due to hear the first day of prosecution evidence against Thomas Mair, who is accused of her murder, but when he failed to appear at the Old Bailey, the judge with “great reluctance” called a halt to the trial.

“Members of the jury: you will observe that the defendant is not in the dock and he will not be attending court today,” Mr Justice Wilkie said. “The reason for this is there are circumstances at Belmarsh prison where he is currently residing — and I understand at prisons all over the country — which preclude bringing any prisoners to court.

“What has caused this is obviously particularly disruptive of this trial because there are witnesses who have travelled a long distance to be here.”

The hearing in London is being held 200 miles from the scene of Ms Cox’s death, under procedures used in terrorism cases. Mr Mair has refused to enter a plea and the court has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

The action by prison staff follows a series of incidents in jails across England and Wales, including an alleged murder, a riot and an escape from Pentonville prison in north London in the past month alone.

The number of frontline prison officers has fallen by a quarter to 18,000 in the past six years, following cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget. Meanwhile, the prison population has continued to rise and is now double what it was in the 1990s.

Liz Truss, justice secretary, last month announced reforms including a recruitment drive to increase the number of prison guards by 2,500. But people in the sector say it is increasingly hard to find staff who are prepared to work in dangerous conditions on a starting salary of just over £20,000.

18,000

The number of frontline prison officers, which has fallen by a quarter in the past six years

As the protest began, the POA said it had “consistently raised the volatile and dangerous state of prisons” as well as “chronic staff shortages”.

“The continued surge in violence and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self-harm, coupled with the recent murder and escapes demonstrate that the service is in meltdown,” it said in a statement.

The ministry said there was “no justification” for the officers’ action.

“We have been engaged in constructive talks with the POA over the past two weeks and have provided a comprehensive response to a range of health and safety concerns,” the department said.

“We have well-established contingencies in place to manage prisons and keep the public safe.”

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