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The BBC's Enver Solomon
"30000 prisoners pass through Wandsworth each year"
 real 28k

The Prison Ombudsman Stephen Shaw
"I unreservedly welcome the Prime Minister's decision to visit a prison"
 real 28k

Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 15:28 GMT
Blair to 'go to prison'
Prison
No serving prime minister has visited a prison before
Downing Street say Tony Blair will become the first serving British prime minister to visit a prison when he travels to a jail in the Home Counties next week.

Mr Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw will meet inmates and staff at the prison - as yet unidentified - on Monday.

The visit will coincide with the launch of the government's national crime plan.

The plan is expected to include what ministers call a "root and branch" reform of the criminal justice system.

It will focus on tackling the hardcore of 100,000 persistent offenders believed by ministers to be responsible for about half of all crime in England and Wales.

Tougher sentences

It will propose moves to give tougher sentences to repeat offenders, while improving prison regimes to offer more basic education and skills training both before and after prisoners are released.

A 700m programme over the next three years will see 2,500 more prison places created to house the most hardened criminals. One third of that money will be spent on rehabilitation programmes.

Crime is likely to be a key election issue. The national crime plan is the latest in a long list of measures recently announced by Jack Straw to crack down on offenders.

Mr Blair is said to have ordered a "radical" approach to the problem of the 100,000 hardcore offenders.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair is seeking a radical approach to crime
It follows government research which found that almost half of these offenders are under the age of 21, while two out of three use hard drugs.

More than half have no qualifications at all, and three out of four were unemployed when they were last arrested.

Rehabilitation

Ministers now believe longer prison sentences for such offenders, under a more enlightened jail regime, could offer a genuine chance of rehabilitation and less risk of re-offending.

About 60% of the 100,000 target group at present serve sentences of only 12 months or less.

Under the plan, persistent offenders will receive longer sentences.

However, they will be given increased support and will be able to develop skills under the government's New Deal programme.

But the plan will also make clear there are some offenders from whom society simply needs protection.

Mr Blair's decision to visit a jail follows the description of some prisons as "hellholes" by Prison Service director Martin Narey.

Mr Narey recently threatened to resign unless prison governors backed his reforming approach.

Mr Narey said treating prisoners with dignity and providing for their rehabilitation need cost no extra cash but required a culture change among some governors and staff.

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See also:

17 Feb 01 | UK Politics
New rights for crime victims
08 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair unveils second term vision
31 Jan 01 | UK Politics
New crime plan a 'stunt' say Tories
16 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Sharp rise in violent crime
10 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Public losing confidence in police
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