Alcatraz-style jail planned

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The Independent Online
HEATHER MILLS

Home Affairs Correspondent

A super-secure Alcatraz-style prison for high risk, sophisticated prisoners, another to take psychotic and volatile inmates, and the setting up of armed response units are central to Sir John Learmont's blueprint for the future.

His withering 180-page report contains 127 recommendations for root and branch reform, designed to end what he described as: "a chapter of errors at every level and a naivety that defies belief."

As well as improving the physical security of the country's jails, the report recommends restructuring and streamlining management, a total reappraisal of the risks posed by all inmates and major changes in their treatment. "This inquiry has found a great deal that needs to be put right within the prison service, spanning leadership, structure, the management chain and the ethos of the Service," Sir John concludes.

In what will be a controversial recommendation to a Home Secretary who does not want to appear soft on prisoners, he also recommends to use of in-cell television as a means of control. He suggests that its provision and the hours it can be used could be used as an incentive for good behaviour. "The fact that so many other countries have gone down this road is proof positive of its advantages." He identifies as a priority the need to end the drug culture in jails and suggests removing prisoners' rights to private cash, which has allowed some to have access to thousands of pounds. All cash should be earned and jails should increase the amount of work available to inmates.

Sir John suggests mandatory "closed" visits, where visitors and prisoners are divided by glass screens, for all exceptional risk inmates, like IRA prisoners. He also says that Judge Stephen Tumim, the independent Chief Inspector of Prisons - who had warned about lax security at Parkhurst before the escape - should have an enhanced role with an increased staff.

The cost is estimated at over pounds 134.5m in the first four years - the bulk of which is for the two new super-secure prisons.

Denying that he had imported the idea from the United States, Sir John said a well-respected architect had been brought in to design a British jail for the 21st century. It would have two control towers, and although he makes no recommendation for on-site firearms, he does suggest the setting up of armed response units. Visitors would have to pass through a tunnel into a prison divided into separate, self-contained units, with all recreational areas covered by anti-helicopter wire. Would-be escapees would have to negotiate three walls and a fence, dogs, cameras and alarms.

The idea for an Alcatraz-type jail was first put forward 30 years ago by Earl Mountbatten, after his inquiry into the escape of the spy George Blake.

But his idea of holding all the most dangerous criminals under one roof was rejected in favour of the current "dispersal" system - which spreads all high risk prisoners among six top security jails: Parkhurst, Whitemoor, Full Sutton, Long Lartin, Frankland and Belmarsh.

Sir John has reversed the 30-year penal policy after a series of security embarrassments, including those at Parkhurst and Whitemoor, which showed that the dispersal system was far from foolproof. The humiliations began with the spectacular helicopter escape in 1987 from Gartree prison by Andrew Russell. He was also among those who escaped from Whitemoor in September last year.

But there remains deep concern about the new plans, not least from governors who claim it makes impossible the breaking up of gangs bent on escape, violence or intimidation.

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