THE LONE prison officer patrolling the Victorian landings of Lincoln prison did not see it coming. Set upon by two, perhaps three inmates, he was overpowered and relieved of the keys hanging from his belt.
Within seconds, the rebel prisoners had made their way through A Wing, releasing fellow inmates from their cells as they went. For more than two hours, the prison was controlled by the inmates, who raided the prison pharmacy and took a cocktail of drugs.
Only by 4.15am yesterday did Lincoln's officers - with the help of 200 colleagues called in from 17 other jails - regain control of the prison.
The rioting was the worst in a British jail for a decade, possibly since the Strangeways disturbances of 1990.
For many observers, the violence was an inevitable result of overcrowding in the prison service. Britain locks up more people per head of population than any other country in Europe, though the United States imprisons even more.
Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said that the authorities could expect similar disturbances to Lincoln in the future if jails were not resourced correctly.
"As long as the judiciary and politicians continue to expect more and more prisoners in less and less secure accommodation with less and less staff, we will get more of these incidents," he said.
"And they are very serious incidents where prisoners and staff lives are put at risk. We believe that there are many overcrowded prisons now that are reaching crisis point."
Outside Lincoln jail, the director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, said that "like most local prisons" Lincoln had been overcrowded, but he added: "I don't believe overcrowding is the cause and it is certainly not a justification for this."
Despite early reports that some rioters were remand inmates distressed by delays in hearing their cases, the involvement in the violence of so many prisoners suggested more widespread unrest.
The number of prisoners held in England and Wales has increased from 48,000 at the start of the Nineties to its current level of 72,517, a rise of more than 50 per cent.
Nacro, the crime reduction charity, pointed out that the number of remand prisoners - who it said were under "high levels of stress" - had increased by 18 per cent in a year, from 11,060 to 13,080.
Outbreaks of significant disorder have already occurred this year at Belmarsh prison in London, Rochester prison in Kent and at the privately- run Ashfield jail in Bristol.
Warnings of the growing threat of violence have been made by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, the Prison Governors' Association, the Prison Officers' Association (POA) and various penal reform groups.
When the disgraced Tory peer Lord Archer was sent to Lincoln last month as a punishment for breaking prison rules, the jail was described by gleeful tabloid newspapers as "a hell-hole".
In fact, the 130-year-old institution is a typical "local" prison, with the same problems as many other jails. In a report published this summer following a visit in December last year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, praised the jail's regime.
She said: "Lincoln provided a safe and respectful environment with good staff-prisoner relationships, and where more than 80 per cent of the inmates felt …