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Cracking Crime Friday, 13 September, 2002, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Governor fears return to overcrowded prisons
Durham prison houses one of the UK's close supervision centres used for prisoners with serious behavioural problems
Durham Prison has 720 prisoners and no room to spare
BBC News Online's Marcus George

In the first of a series of profiles for the BBC's Cracking Crime day, Marcus George visits Durham Prison to meet its governor.
Not everyone has rifled through a princess's handbag. But that didn't stop Mike Newell, governor of Durham prison when Princess Anne came to visit last year.

No-one had told the princess and the task fell to the boss who preferred to check the royal purse than break his own rules.

I received the search generously carried out by no less than three HM prison guards, but without the red carpet.

Mike Newell is a slender man in his early 50s who likes golf, the theatre and has spent the last 28 years working his way up the prison service.

Governor of Durham prison Mike Newell
Governor Mike Newell: "Politicians must tackle overcrowding"
The governorship of Durham, a category A security prison, was handed to him in 1999.

And it remains the model for jails across the rest of the country.

HMP Durham houses some of the UK's hardest criminals and includes one of the few close supervision centres in the UK, built to contain severely disruptive prisoners.

When it comes to campaigning, Mr Newell, also president of the association of prison governors, is a reformist, almost a revolutionary.

"The Prison Service is now in danger of being completely overwhelmed by the number of people going to prison," he says, warming to his theme of overcrowding - a perennial problem.

"Years ago there were three to every cell, with prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

"The fire brigade had to come in every day to pump water because the drains couldn't cope."

Tagging

And numbers are rising again: the prison population is nearing 72,000, a 6,000 increase during the last year.

At this rate, Mr Newell forecasts 85,000 prisoners in two years' time.


The public is vulnerable to knee-jerk reactions. As a result ministers are under more pressure to make knee-reactions

Mike Newell
"It's about political will," he adds. "We have to take some people out of the system."

"Right now the inn is full," he says bleakly, "and it's full all over the country."

The solution lies with the use of electronic tagging, electronic curfews and other "community sentences" to replace "worthless" short sentences.

"The prison service can do very little with those individuals. People like this will re-offend until their problems are addressed."

This would take 5,000 offenders out of custody giving the prison authority the chance to divert resources elsewhere.

But he admits achieving this is not as easy as it sounds and laws can be changed too easily.

"The public is vulnerable to knee-jerk reactions. As a result ministers are under more pressure to make knee-reactions," he added furrowing his brow.

Failings in services outside prisons have also added to prison authorities' woes.

'Modern scandal'

The degradation of services for mentally-ill patients has let many fall through the system, he says.

And prisons are now the support system for the lack of mental health provision.

"This allows the health service to avoid the responsibility. But it must be tackled. It's a modern scandal."

Durham is a maximum security prison
Durham is a maximum security prison
Despite championing standards in Britain¿s jails, Mike Newell insists rehabilitation is not about pampering prisoners.

He sees the goal of prisons as preventing criminals from developing into serial offenders. And that is only possible by changing their behaviour.

With a steely glare Mike Newell begins to take on the role of an archetypal prison governor.

"And not all prisoners have televisions. We expect prisoners to get up for work, go to work and earn money. As a result they'll earn some privileges."

On the way out an automated message reminds employees to drop their keys.

If a single set goes out of the building, the governor explains, the security system has to be changed.

He grimaces at the thought and then beams jovially.

"And at £80,000 a go, it's not something we like to try too often."


Profiles

Background stories

Analysis
See also:

03 Sep 02 | UK News
Wormwood still to scrub up
22 Aug 02 | England
Life inside Holloway prison
20 Aug 02 | UK News
Life in an open prison
12 Jul 02 | UK News
Prison over-crowding crisis
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