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Right of Reply: The head of the Prison Service responds to Andreas Whittam Smith's attack on UK jails

ANDREAS WHITTAM Smith's criticisms of the Prison Service are ill- informed and outdated. Great improvements in conditions have been made over the past few years despite an increasing prison population.

The suggestion that prisoners are still required to "slop out" is simply not true. The practice of slopping out was degrading and that is why it was ended in 1996 when the programme of providing integrated sanitation in cells was completed.

Where in-cell sanitation is not provided prisoners have 24 hour access to toilet facilities. We have not held three prisoners in a cell designed for one since 1994 The use of police cells was eliminated in 1995.

To suggest that prison officers "deny the humanity of the people in their care" is offensive to my staff, who provide a supportive regime for prisoners. The job is highly pressurised, and sometimes dangerous, and it is unfair to underestimate the efforts made by officers to provide a constructive environment.

The assertion that the Prison Service is aware of drug-smuggling techniques used by prisoners and their visitors yet does nothing to stop this is unfair. The Prison Service operates a very active anti-drugs policy, concentrating on security, treatment and education. This has led to a steady decline in the rate of positive test results.

The presence of drugs in our prisons can lead to health problems, debt and bullying, and as a result we are committed to tackling the problem. Those found to be abusing drugs can be given additional imprisonment, have to receive their visitors behind screens, and lose other privileges.

I would like to invite Mr Whittam Smith to visit a prison. I would be delighted to accompany him.