Prison officers 'sent more than 200 miles to plug staffing gaps'
Nearly 250 prison officers are being bussed across the country to fill gaps at other jails because staff shortages are so acute this Christmas, according to leaked documents.
Some officers have been asked to travel more than 200 miles on short-term attachments because of the crisis.
Thirty-two officers are being sent to maximum security Woodhill prison, in Milton Keynes, the documents show.
The Ministry of Justice insisted "most prisons are appropriately staffed".
It said a recent rise in the prison population was being managed "through sensible and proportionate measures".
It is attempting to recruit 1,700 new officers to ease the difficulties.
Documents obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform - and shared with Newsnight - show that more than 50 prisons have been asked to provide officers to plug gaps elsewhere in the system.
In all, 239 officers were asked to move to other prisons during November and December.
'State of flux'
The distances included travelling from Exeter to Swaleside, Kent - 227 miles; from Garth, in Lancashire, to London's Wormwood Scrubs - 218 miles; and from Frankland, County Durham to Woodhill - 228 miles.
All of the staff being sent to Woodhill are being taken away from other category A jails.
The attachments often involve prison officers being put up at hotels for a fortnight at a time.
A specific document about staffing on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day indicates that about 56 officers will be asked to work in other prisons.
The document suggests some officers will be required to work more than 60 miles away.
Peter McParlin, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, told Newsnight: "It means that prisons are permanently in a state of flux.
"We have 250 prison officers traversing the country day in, day out to prop up failing and restricted regimes in prison.
"It means the much-vaunted rehabilitation revolution isn't taking place."
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "The prisons are in complete meltdown as a result of government policy, so they have to move people round in order to deal with that emergency.
"It's very costly and very disruptive. People are fetching up to a prison who don't know where anything is."
She said it was a "chaotic policy to deal with an emergency".
'Top of volcano'
The Howard League said it was particularly concerned that staff were being taken out of young offender institutions to plug gaps in adult prisons.
One former prisoner, who asked for anonymity, said staff shortages had had a big impact on life behind bars.
"There were a lot of vulnerable prisoners, particularly some young prisoners, who were subject to quite severe physical assaults, even sexual assaults.
"I think there was a general feeling, because of the shortage of officers in particular, that bullying was on the rise, extortion, what's called taxing in prison, where prisoners basically have to pay protection money to those cons who are controlling wings.
"And we are also seeing a massive upswing in drugs consumption and availability in prison and that in itself fuels debt, bullying, violence and of course people under the influence of drugs often make very violent and irrational decisions.
"For most of the closed prisons, they are really on top of a volcano at the moment and it is only a matter of time before this could potentially turn into something much more violent and destructive."
The Ministry of Justice said the National Offender Management Service (Noms) had speeded up its recruitment process and that it was on track to recruit another 1,700 staff by March 2015.
It said measures to manage the rise in prison population included an ongoing officer recruitment campaign and the establishment of a reserve force of staff to be called on when needed.
The Ministry of Justice said it did not know how much money was being spent on the short-term attachments because the costs were taken from individual prison budgets.