A life on the ocean wave: comfy berths, sea breezes. Pity about the warders

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The Independent Online
As prison cells go, they must be the ultimate in rooms with a view.

On one side is the golden swathe of Chesil Beach, to the front the bobbing boats on Weymouth Harbour and to the right the open sea with the white cliffs of the Purbeck Hills in the distance.

The only thing to mar the prospect are the unsightly metal bars. The views belong to a select number of cells in the Prison Service's newly acquired floating jail in Portland Harbour, Dorset.

Indeed those that enjoy such an outlook have become highly sought-after by the 63 low-risk inmates who have arrived at the jail so far. "I'm trying to get a seaview cell," enthused Anthony Bedford, 24, from Devon who is serving 12 months for theft. The world's media - from the United States, France and Brazil - were yesterday invited aboard HMP Weare for a guided tour. After facing strong opposition from Weymouth Council and a faulty sprinkler system which has forced two evacuations, the prison is up and running.

Jail officials believe the pounds 12 million spent on bringing the ship over from New York has been money well spent.

From the outside the five-storey vessel looks like a floating warehouse, something an unimaginative six-year-old might build out of grey Lego blocks. After passing through five security checks, all surrounded by 20 feet fences topped with razor wire, the posse of reporters and cameramen were led over the gangplank on to the prison ship.

Staying on the Weare is rather like being sentenced to a never-ending trip on the lower decks of a cross-channel ferry. The main difference is that some spoilsport has whipped out the duty free shop, croissant bar, and newsagents, and then painted all the walls magnolia and fitted fawn-coloured lino.

The cells are not unlike a cabin on a ferry, except they are bigger and better equipped.

The jail has 200 two-man cells, measuring about nine feet by 16 feet with 50 rooms on five landings. Each has two bunk-beds, and en suite bathroom, with a shower, toilet and sink. They are air conditioned because the reinforced windows are sealed.

There is a glass window, rather like the displays at reptile houses in zoos. Bars are only placed on cells that have sea-views - half the rooms are in the centre of the ship and face inwards.

Facilities on board include a gym, recreation areas and a caged yard on top of the vessel. But despite these areas it is going to be difficult to keep up to 400 inmates.

Michael Burrows, 34, serving twelve months for theft, said: "Normally you can't wait to get out of the cell but here you can't wait to get in."

Richard Tilt, the Prison Service Director General, said yesterday that he'd been forced to use the jail to help ease the prison overcrowding which has reached a record 62,200.

He said it could top 70,000 by next spring and revealed that officials were considering Victorian psychiatric hospitals as makeshift jails.

The prison ship brought some surprise spin-offs.

The Portland Oceaneering diving shop is doing a brisk trade in pounds 8 T-shirts with the slogan "I've seen Portland Prison Ship". For pounds 14 more the shop offers a mask and flippers under the sign "Underwater escape kit - special discounts for prisoners."