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Tuesday, 3 September, 2002, 03:25 GMT 04:25 UK
Wormwood still to scrub up
Prison door
Wormwood Scrubbs finds itself in the firing line again

The latest report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on Wormwood Scrubs will re-open scars which the prison service was hoping desperately had healed.

For several years, the jail once described as the flagship of the service was mired in a controversy which led to two major police inquiries, court appearances, convictions and the sacking of staff.

Now, the Chief Inspector, Anne Owers, has fuelled fears that even though the jail has been turned upside down since allegations of violence by officers first surfaced over four years ago, what she terms the old culture could re-emerge.

The Director-General of the Service, Martin Narey, has publicly rejected the chief conclusions of her report.

Perhaps for the first time in anyone's memory, Wormwood Scrubs is now a prison in which prisoners are treated with respect, he said.

But Daniel Machover, the solicitor who has marshalled the bulk of the allegations by inmates against staff, regards that as dangerously complacent and has renewed his call for a public inquiry.

Martin Neary, Director General of the Prison Service
Martin Neary: critical of prison conditions

"Remember that the allegations of brutality began at a time when there was severe jail overcrowding," he said, "and we now have similar conditions.

"This is why I believe that the threat of a return to the old ways hasn't been removed."

The second of two police inquiries into claims of violence by staff is nearing completion.

And though it is thought unlikely there will be any more criminal prosecutions, the legal fallout from an unprecedented series of allegations has yet to be dealt with.

About ten civil claims have been settled, at a cost to the service of tens of thousands of pounds, and at least 35 cases are still pending.

No progress

But more worrying for the future of the service, the chief inspector finds that on the four major criteria on which a healthy jail should be judged - safety of inmates, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement - Wormwood Scrubs has made no discernible progress since her last inspection.

For Martin Narey to reject her conclusions and to give his managers a robust vote of confidence suggests a deep disagreement about how to measure progress in prisons.

In the segregation unit, where much of the violence is alleged to have occurred, there are visible signs of a new approach.

CCTV cameras have been installed, staff are chosen for their inter-personal skills and they are encouraged not to work in the unit for more than three years.

But whether the former flagship is thoroughly seaworthy again remains in dispute.

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03 Sep 02 | Politics
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