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Review: Giving the prison system a soft cell

'I KNEW the moment I'd killed him with the very first blow,' said Hugh Collins recalling the murder that put him inside for 16 years, 'because it was a long knife, a Bowie knife . . . about 10 inches, 12 inches, and my knuckles caught his jacket so I knew the blade had gone right through him.' He has a scar on his face as deep as the seam on an old leather football and watching him practise his martial arts manoeuvres, zodiacal tattoos rippling across his naked back, your first thought was not 'Ah, this looks like the sort of chap who will have interesting thoughts on prison reform' but 'Where does he live so I know not to go there.'

This was partly World in Action (ITV) grandstanding, of course. They could have shown him strolling around an art gallery, or shopping with his wife in Woolworths and it would have been as true to his current life, but they needed that touch of Cape Fear to strengthen their argument - that even the most brutalised offenders can have their lives turned round by the right sort of prison regime. 'Argument' is rather generous. This was actually a single case history padded into something that might pass as a contribution to policy debate by the addition of some clips of Michael Howard's lock-em-up-and-make-it- hurt speech at the Tory Party Conference and a single woolly statement from the Scottish Prison Service.

Blades ran in the family for Collins (his father was sentenced to 10 years for a razor attack) and he first served time at the age of 16. When he killed William Mooney he was sent down for life, a sentence he began in the conventionally tough regime of Perth prison. After several attacks on prison officers ('I really savaged them and I enjoyed it - I enjoyed every minute of it') he was eventually transferred to Barlinnie's Special Unit, the sort of open regime that induces coronaries in the Tory Party faithful - badminton and sunbathing in the exercise yard and cells by Laura Ashley. Collins took up art and before you know it was knocking out Eric Gill-like statues of Christ. Whatever you feel about the wisdom of allowing reformed criminals to contribute to the current glut of contemporary art, it is clear it is preferable to carving up fellow citizens.

Apart from this one encouraging story, though, World in Action didn't offer much that would have allowed you to assess current policy in an informed rather than anecdotal way. The unit itself was seen only in old film clips, and hard facts about its effectiveness were virtually non-existent. 'We have to deliver value for money,' said the Prison Board spokesman, noting that there are only eight prisoners in the unit compared to 6,000 elsewhere in the Scottish prison system. And, in the absence of comparative costs, it was impossible to judge their claim that violence is 50 times less likely on the Special Unit and inmates half as likely to re-offend. Until they come up with a better case than this, it seems likely that the Conservative notion of value for money will continue to be More Banged-up For The Buck.

Cutting Edge's report on Fire Investigators (C4) was like a charcoal biscuit - charred, dull but good for you. Once you've seen one gutted building, you've seen them all, at least on television, which isn't very good at the nuances between one collection of cinders and another. So there was a lot of standing around here as firemen swung their torch beams through the murk and tried to work out where it had all gone wrong. They aren't cynical men but they do appear to have been kippered by their work, smoke-dried into a matter- of-factness about death. 'What kind of condition is she in . . . apart from deceased that is?' asked one fireman about a young woman found dead in a gutted flat. They also know how to tweak a guilty conscience; trying to find out why a plastic bathtub has ignited, one investigator politely asked the occupant whether he smoked in the bathroom. No, never in the bathroom. The fireman nodded politely. 'Does the cat have the run of the house?' he asked later, a little slyly. Yes. 'That's it, then. The cat's been smoking.'