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The BBC's Jon Silverman
"Birmingham certainly by any definition has been a desparately failing jail"
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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 13:31 GMT
Why are so many prisons so bad?
HMP Brixton
Brixton prison was one of several recently described as "hell holes"
Yet another prison has had a damning report by the prisons inspector Sir David Ramsbotham. But Birmingham's Winson Green jail is not an isolated case. So why are so many prisons so bad?

The Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Sir David Ramsbotham, has described conditions at Birmingham's Winson Green jail as some of the worst he has ever seen.

Sir David said conditions had deteriorated since his last highly critical report in 1998 and he accused ministers of ignoring his recommendations.

At the end of the day cash is king and...there are no votes in prisons, which means they will continue to be under-resourced.

John Boddington, POA
Eleven per cent of inmates claimed to have been assaulted by officers at the jail and one mentally-disturbed prisoner had been denied a wash or change of clothes for weeks because staff thought he was faking his illness.

'Hell holes'

Winson Green was one of a number of failing prisons controversially described as "hell holes" by Prison Service director general Martin Narey in a speech last month.

Others he named were Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton in London, Portland in Dorset and Leeds' Armley jail.

Feltham young offenders' institution in west London was also criticised recently for the "overtly racist behaviour" of many staff.

So why are so many of Britain's prisons so bad?

Sir David Ramsbotham
Sir David said he was "appalled" by Winson Green
John Boddington, acting vice-chairman of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), said the problems at Winson Green were caused by overcrowding and understaffing.

'Unable to provide basics'

He told BBC News Online: "It is resourced and staffed to look after 800 prisoners, but has been having to cope with between 1,000 and 1,300.

"That is why they have been unable to provide the basics, like showers, clean clothes and mail, on a regular basis."

He said this had also led to high levels of sick leave among officers.

Mr Boddington said Winson Green was not alone in facing these problems of under-funding.

"At the end of the day cash is king and while there are votes in health and education, there are no votes in prisons, which means they will continue to be under-resourced," he said.

HMP Wandsworth
The exercised yard at Wandsworth prison
As for racism among officers, he said the POA "abhorred" racism and added: "We are the only union in the TUC which has actually expelled a racist - a few years ago we expelled a member who had links to the BNP."

Mr Boddington said there was also a danger of a two-tier prison system. He said the officer-prisoner ratio in old Victorian jails such as Winson Green was 1:3.2 while in modern, high-security jails such as Whitemoor it was 1:1.5.

'Lack of action on racism'

Tim Colbourne, prison policy officer with the Howard League for Penal Reform, said while both the POA and Mr Narey "say the right things" about racism, there was a lack of action on it.

He said that while lack of money was undoubtedly part of the reason for the poor state of British prisons, there was also something more fundamental.

"What we advocate is a complete rethink of the way prisons are set up. Huge institutions such as Birmingham have a very poor record of reforming prisoners.

What we advocate is a complete rethink of the way prisons are set up...but it's a matter of political will.

Tim Colbourne, Howard League for Penal Reform
"We would prefer smaller units looking after the really problematic people. But it's a matter of political will," said Mr Colbourne.

He said in the last eight years the prison population had risen 50% and he said it was no coincidence that this was at a time when there was a consensus of opinion between the two main political parties that "getting tough" was the answer to crime.

'Staff inflexibility'

Norman Parker, who spent more than 20 years in jail before starting a career as a writer, said in his experience much of the problem was the "inflexibility" of the officers and the undue power of the POA.

He told BBC News Online: "They tend to think the government doesn't know what it's doing. They think 'We're the officers on the ground and we know how to treat these animals'."

Mr Parker said: "The problem of British prisons is about money but it's also about the negative attitudes of the officers.

"Unless the officers can be controlled by a management structure, then this canteen culture will continue to undermine attempts to treat prisoners decently."

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See also:

15 Mar 01 | UK
Jail 'among worst in UK'
18 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Prison chief's horror over raid
31 Jan 00 | UK Politics
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