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Saturday, April 17, 1999 Published at 01:51 GMT 02:51 UK


Prison conditions - a lottery?

Overcrowding is a problem in many prisons

In the same week that the prison service as a whole was attacked for its "cynical" approach by its chief inspector, one institution was praised for creating a "humane, safe and caring" community.

The Wolds Remand Prison near Hull has been hailed for its friendly staff, although the Prison Service has denied that two prisoners have asked to be moved because they are "culture-shocked" by its relaxed atmosphere.

Over the past few months, however, some reports on other prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales have been less cosy.

Feltham Young Offenders Institute in west London was described in March as "rotten to the core" by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbottom.

[ image: Wold Remand Prison:
Wold Remand Prison: "Humane, safe and caring community"
HMP Chelmsford had "unacceptibly bad conditions of cleanliness" and staff had failed to respond to alarm calls during inspection.

And Birmingham Prison was described as the "untidiest and dirtiest" inspectors had ever seen. They also described how prisoners spent most of their day locked into their cells, which were overcrowded.

On the other hand, staff at Blackenhurst Prison, near Redditch in Worcestershire, were lauded for their "can-do attitude", and the regime called "positive and healthy".

This disparity in conditions, says the Home Office, has a great deal to do with the age, location and function of different institutions.

Spokeswoman Ruma Multani said that local prisons - where prisoners go as a first port of call from the courts, either on remand or to be assessed - can by their nature be overcrowded and unsettled places.

Targets for all prisons

She said: "It can be very difficult to set up education or training programmes for people when you don't know how long they are going to be with you.

"There is also the situation that local prisons tend to be large, old Victorian buidlings which hold all sorts of prisoners. It would be very rare for someone to be sent straight to an open prison, for example, without being assessed at a local prison first.

"This means that there is a high turnover of prisoners and that situation does present difficulties. For instance, it would be more difficult for prison officers to build up relationships with prisoners."

The Home Office does, however, offer guidelines or targets for all prison institutions.

[ image: Feltham YOI:
Feltham YOI: "Rotten to the core"
Key Performance Indicators, brought in under the administration of Derek Lewis, lay down basic standards including the amount of time prisoners should have outside their cells, and the amount of time they are able to spend in "purposeful activities".

But penal reformers say KPIs are not helpful, and that the present government's tough stance on law and order has had a detrimental effect on prison conditions.

Director of the Howard League, Frances Cook, says that too many people are being jailed.

"In 1993, there was a prison population of 40,000 in this country. Today it is more than 60,000.


"There are currently 12,000 people on remand, and 60% of them will not get a prison sentence - so why are they being sent there in the first place?

"There are also a large number of people being sent to prison for very short amounts of time. While these people are a nuisance, they are hardly armed robbers, and should be dealt with in ways other than prison. The pressure on the courts is enormous."

Resources, or lack of them, are often partly blamed for a bad inspectors report.

State-run prisons must bid for resources, and there are no guarantees that they will get all the funds they ask for.

But privately-run prisons - such as HMP Doncaster, which has the highest suicide rate in England and Wales - have also come under fire.

[ image: A Key Performance Indicator is the amount of time prisoners spend out of their cells]
A Key Performance Indicator is the amount of time prisoners spend out of their cells
John Bates, of the Wold Remand Prison, said their success had been achieved through the hard work and dedication of staff.

"Prison is by no means a nice place to be, and I think the chief inspector's report is very clear that the Wold is not a soft prison.

"But our aim is that prisoners use their time to overcome the problems or circumstances that are behind them committing offences, and that can only be achieved if they are treated with respect.

"We certainly feel that we have been successful in our aims, and that is backed by the chief inspector's report.

"We do not have access to more funding than other prisons, but it is up to other professional bodies to comment on why other prisons have been criticised."

The Prison Officers Association was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Ms Crook says that prisons will always be short of funds, and that the only way to improve standards is to have much clearer guidelines, which are laid down in legislation.

She said: "I have been travelling about different young offender institutions, and the disparity in regimes is startling. In some places children are consulted and empowered - in others they are marched around and told they are scum by the officers. Each governor thinks his regime is for the best.

"The problems - and their solutions - are really at a political level. We need far more precise guidelines than we have at the moment, and we also need fewer people to be put through the system."

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