PRISON staff claim they are being left chained to prisoners on Covid-19 hospital wards for up to 18 hours with no breaks.

Workers employed by GEOAmey, on a Scottish Prison Service contract, said they fear contracting the virus – and “taking it home to their families”.

In conditions described as “Dickensian” by union bosses, prison custody officers (PCOs) are allegedly working excessive hours without adequate PPE and are denied breaks.

GEOAmey, however, denied the claims and said all PPE used is “medical grade” with careful risk assessments in place.

PCOs are responsible for escorting prisoners to and from jails across Scotland, such as to court and hospital.

One PCO in Glasgow, who spoke to the Glasgow Times on condition of anonymity, said morale among staff was at an all-time low.

He said: “PPE has been an issue from day one of the Covid crisis. We are going down to hospital but they are not telling us we are going on to Covid wards.

“We carry out ‘bed watch’ where, if the person goes to hospital, we go with them and look after them, but we are only told by other staff members when we get there that there is a Covid risk.

“We are given those blue paper masks to wear – the ones you can just buy in the shops – and plastic gloves and plastic aprons.

“Hospital staff change their clothes when they leave work but there is nowhere for us to change so we are going home in the same clothes we have been wearing in the hospital and potentially taking the virus home to our families.”

GEOAmey took on the contract for Scottish Court Custody and Prisoner Escorting Service two years ago.

It employs around 700 people across Scotland and was responsible, before the coronavirus crisis, for 11,500 prisoner movements every week between police custody suites, courts and prisons.

Officers claim they are not told before their shift starts what time they will finish, making organising childcare or family life impossible.

They also say that the high number of staff self-isolating means there is often not enough cover for breaks.

The employee added: “We are chained to the prisoner so there is only one metre distance between you and the person who has Covid-19 – and these can be the highest level of prisoner, murderers or rapists – and we have to sit there to eat or drink because there is no one to cover breaks.

“But the nurses tell us not to take our masks off so, ultimately, you don’t get to eat or drink anything. That happens on a regular basis, every single day of the week.

“You can write Monday to Friday off because you don’t know what’s going to be happening at work any of those days – there is no work/life balance. Morale is at the lowest it’s ever been and there are people here who have been doing the job for 10 or 15 years saying that.”

GMB Scotland said PCOs can be paid less than half the wages of a prison officer, despite the “huge responsibility” of the role.

The union said it had evidence of one staff team being required to work a near 20-hour shift before a relief crew could be found. It further said that staff are not being paid while they are self-isolating.

GMB organiser Karen Leonard said: “The model GEOAmey operate has been exposed by the Covid crisis.

“They are expecting levels of hyper-flexibility from workers that would shame a Victorian mill owner and it is totally at odds with the Scottish Government’s fair work agenda. They are the cheap option, and the price is being paid in workers’ health and mental well-being.

“At the very least the Scottish Government needs to investigate GEOAmey on exploitative work practices in what is a public-issued contract.

“GMB Scotland is calling for proper rostering arrangements to ensure workers have legal breaks; that there are guaranteed finishing times; and maximum hours of work allowed in one day.

“The current set up is a danger to workers’ health and well-being and compromises public safety.

“Eventually the Scottish Government must look at how these vital public services are delivered. GMB Scotland believes that these services should be brought back in-house and directly delivered by the public sector.”

In response to this situation, GMB Scotland said it will hold consultative ballots with members ahead of a campaign around workers’ rights within the GEOAmey contract.

A GEOAmey spokesman said: “All persons in our care will have a written record that officers can refer to.

“If a person has, or is suspected to have Covid-19, this will be marked on their record. It will also contain details regarding the hospital department, which will determine what level of PPE is required.

“All of our PPE is medical grade and has been risk assessed as appropriate for the particular circumstances, including the length of time that an officer may be in close proximity to the person in our care.

“Our risk assessment and PPE processes have been in place throughout the entirety of the pandemic.”

The Scottish Government was approached for comment but referred the Glasgow Times to the Scottish Prison Service, which did not