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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 00:13 GMT
Tackling a 'failing jail' system
Sir David Ramsbotham
Sir David Ramsbotham says there is a problem with prison management
By the BBC's home affairs correspondent Jon Silverman

With only a few months remaining in his post, Sir David Ramsbotham, Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, is unrelenting in his assault on what he considers unacceptable standards in jails.

After more than five years, the criteria by which he judges a prison to be "failing" are well known - a poor standard of health care; little time out of cell or purposeful activity; and too many inmates complaining that they feel unsafe.

On all these counts, Birmingham's Winson Green Prison is near the bottom of the pile.

But as a former soldier, Sir David is especially perturbed at what he sees as a failure in line management.

'Losing their grip'

Too often, he believes, serious problems are allowed to develop in jails because area managers, and above them, prison service headquarters chiefs, have lost their grip.

Sir David's relations with both ministers and the prison service have, at times, been abrasive.

But the Home Secretary accepts that a system in which his chief inspector is usually the first to identify serious failings rather than the service itself needs serious examination.

To this end, a former chief inspector of social services, Lord Laming, was invited to review the management of the service.

The government hopes that his report, published last year, will be a blueprint for reform.

However, Sir David is not entirely convinced and comments acidly in his Birmingham report: "Regrettably, Lord Laming did not describe what he meant by a failing prison".

The present director-general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey - unlike some of his predecessors - has been increasingly forthright about the issue of failing jails.

Apologies

Last month, he astonished an audience at the service's annual conference by threatening to resign if he had to continue apologising for "the immorality of our treatment of some prisoners and the degradation of some establishments".
Winson Green prison
Birmingham's Winson Green prison came bottom of the list

This broadside was in part aimed at some governors who - according to Mr Narey - hide behind the excuse of overcrowding and scanty resources to explain poor conditions at their jails.

Seen from the governors' perspective, though, the picture is rather different.

Chris Scott, governor at the time of Sir David's inspection, has been off sick ever since and is about to launch a claim for compensation for what he considers to be work-induced stress.

The Prison Governors' Association, which is backing him, believes that he was not given the support he deserved from senior managers in the service.

And it is true that since the inspection, many of the things for which he had lobbied - such as a sharp reduction in the number of inmates - have come about.

But the fact that it takes a series of shrill condemnations by the chief inspector to effect even small improvements in prisons remains worrying for all concerned.

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See also:

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