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Monday, June 28, 1999 Published at 19:36 GMT 20:36 UK


Troubled history of the Scrubs

Governor Stephen Moore has a Herculean task on his hands

Riots, escapes, damning reports and protests by both prisoners and warders have helped to seal the notoriety of HMP Wormwood Scrubs over the past 30 years.

Ever since Russian spy George Blake climbed over a wall to freedom from the maximum security Victorian jail in 1966, its troubles have never been far away from the headlines.

There have been high spots - theatre productions by inmates which received critical acclaim, and a new regime for sex offenders was launched with much fanfare in the early 80s.

But conditions inside the jail have been repeatedly found desperately wanting.

The jail - which ironically, was a pioneering model of prison reform when it was built in the 1880s - has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past decades.

Its given capacity is just over 1,000 - but its facilities have been continually stretched to house, at times, up to 1,400.

[ image: George Blake's audacious escape in 1966 placed the prison under the spotlight]
George Blake's audacious escape in 1966 placed the prison under the spotlight
In 1979 IRA protesters staged a rooftop protest over visiting rights and in the same year tensions inside the overcrowded and poorly equipped jail gave rise to serious fights and disturbances.

In August a peaceful sit-in was orchestrated by 60 inmates of D-wing, which houses lifers. They wanted to protest about issues including the quality of toiletries available for inmates to buy.

Of particular issue was prison toothpaste, which inmates said was so gritty and bitter, it "ripped your mouth to shreds".

In the following weeks, it was perceived that prison officers had developed a 'zero tolerance regime' and were cracking down on every infringement of rules, however minor.

The explosive result of a fortnight of friction between staff and prisoners was a riot which saw 60 inmates and several prison officers injured.

However, it was not until 1982 that the full facts of the riot became known, when a report into the disturbances was published.

'Penal dustbin'

It found that poor management of staff and general confusion in suppressing the riot had in fact magnified its effects.

In the same year, prison governor John McCarthy - who was not in charge at the time of the riot - quit, saying he could no longer work in a system that did not help prisoners to reform.

The previous year, he had written a letter to The Times, condemning a lack of political will to improve the prison service, and in which he said that the Scrubs had become a "penal dustbin".

His successor, Ian Dunbar had to contend with further riots and violence throughout 1983, most in the maximum security D-wing.

[ image:
"Slopping out" was common practice at the prison until fairly recently
In the first six months of the year, there were six hostage sieges - the most serious involving a female assistant governor being held with a razor to her throat.

The riot of June that year was contained in just 12 minutes, but was described as a "running battle" between inmates armed with dustbin lids and bed heads, and wardens with truncheons.

By February 1984, a 30.5m redevelopment scheme for the prison had been approved.

The eight-year plan was to see a total of 252 cells to be added to the existing 914.

In the same month it came to light that a handful of prisoners (not IRA) had been conducting a dirty protest for a number of weeks - smearing themselves and their surroundings with their own excrement.

'Out of control'

Throughout the 1980s, the prison's Board of Visitors demanded action over poor standards of hygiene and lack of integral sanitation in cells.

It drew attention to the poor provision within the prison for the mentally ill.

Its report of August 1987 described a "desolate regime" and said that "nothing has changed since our report last year _ despite reassurances that things would change".

And in 1989, the same body raised serious concerns over the safety of staff in the once-lauded sex offender annexe.

The Board of Visitors reported that the unit was "out of control" and that inmates were more likely to reoffend upon release.

Monday's report by the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbottom, compounds the jail's most current difficulties.

[ image: 100 officers phoned in sick]
100 officers phoned in sick
Controversy surrounding the prison has amplified by the day over the past few months.

New governor Stephen Moore has certainly had no honeymoon period to ease himself into his role.

Allegations of mistreatment of prisoners by staff have led to the suspension of 25 officers, who now face charges of brutality.

Warders have reacted angrily to the action against their colleagues - who all protest innocence - and at the staffing crisis which they say has resulted from their suspension.

The jail has a long history of industrial action by prison officers - indeed Sir David's report highlights poor industrial relations and their effect on management of the institution.

Incredible measures

In the past they have frequently refused to cover prison visits and association times, and have threatened walk-outs in protest over staffing levels - which have been consistently criticised by the Prison Officers Association.

But over the past couple of years they have resorted to incredible measures to ram their message home.

In April last year - in protest at the police inquiry - about 100 officers phoned in sick.

And this month, about 80 staged a sit-in in the prison chapel, demanding extra training and guarantees about their safety.

Changes are afoot - 200 prisoners are being sent out to other jails, and the trouble-plagued D-wing is temporarily closed for refurbishment.

But Mr Moore has a Herculean task ahead of him if the years of controversy at the prison are to be turned around in six months.

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