The Prison Service should follow the example of private sector employers such as Tesco and curb sick pay for its staff in a bid to cut its £80 million absenteeism bill.
The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises government spending, has criticised the prison services absenteeism rate as "unacceptable" and recommended that prison staff should not be paid for the first three says of absence.
Absenteeism in the Prison Service is amongst the highest in the public sector. In 2002-03, it lost 668,337 days to sickness absence, the equivalent of an entire year's work for 3,000 full-time staff.
Average absence in England and Wales was 14.7 days in 2002-03 and 13.3 days in 2003-04. The Prison Service target for absence is nine days.
A third of staff took no sick days in 2003-04, a further third took up to five days and the remaining third more than five days. More than a fifth took 11 days or more off sick.
But according the PAC report, some institutions had absenteeism rates of between four and five weeks.
Haslar immigration removal centre in Portsmouth had the highest rate at 24.4 days, followed by Liverpool Prison (22.2 days), Hindley Jail, near Wigan (21.5 days), and Brixton Prison (19.6 days).
Public sector workers took average of ten working days' absence in 2003, 40 per cent more days off than their private sector counterparts, at a cost to the taxpayer of £4bn a year - the equivalent of an extra 1p on income tax.
PAC chairman Edward Leigh MP (Conservative, Gainsborough) said: "The Prison Service has had a higher sickness absence rate than other parts of government for a number of years and has been slow to implement initiatives recommended by this committee in 1999.
"At 14.7 days absence per person in 2002-03, sickness levels are still unacceptably high and the service missed by a long chalk its own target of nine days."
"If the Prison Service met its target, then around 1,000 extra staff would be available for duty," he added.
But unions said that the criticism was unfair. Colin Moses of the Prison Officers' Association said that the PAC had not taken into account the fact that the service was under-strength by almost 2,000 officers as well as the high levels of assault on prison staff.