Situated near the small town of Maghull, on Merseyside, it has housed mentally disturbed patients for more than 80 years. The latest claims - that children were allowed into the hospital and that pornography, drugs and alcohol have been widely available - follow a history of controversy over practices and security at an institution that holds some of the most dangerous men in Britain.
Inmates include Ian Brady, the moors murderer; Horrett Campbell, convicted recently of a machete attack at a primary school in Wolverhampton which left several children and a teacher injured; David Morgan, who slashed 10 women with a knife in a Birmingham store; Robert Sartin, who killed one person and injured 16 others in a gun rampage in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear; and Stephen Wilkinson, who stabbed and killed 12-year-old Nikki Conroy at a Middlesbrough school in 1994.
In 1992, the hospital was the subject of a year-long inquiry chaired by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, which uncovered evidence of the systematic bullying, beating and abuse of patients over a sustained period.
Following the report, the then Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, announced a shake-up at Ashworth. Seven nurses were suspended, the general manager was moved, and the medical director relinquished his post.
Mrs Bottomley announced the setting up of a task force to implement 90 recommendations as well as a study to examine the role of Ashworth and its two sister hospitals - Broadmoor, in Berkshire, and Rampton, in Nottinghamshire.
The inquiry found damning evidence of brutality at the hospital, including physical and sexual attacks on patients by staff. It also cited examples of patients being wrongly held in solitary seclusion, being taunted by staff and being sent obscene material.
Janice Miles, the hospital's chief executive, who was suspended yesterday, was appointed following the inquiry.
A leaked report into the hospital two and a half years ago said that drug-taking and organised crime were rife. Six months later it was revealed that 200 patients were to receive pounds 230,000 from the Prison Officers' Association after they were kept locked in their rooms during industrial action by nursing staff three years previously.
And last year it was reported that Ian Brady was living in a pounds 220-a-night room with his own key, access to a swimming pool, library, mini-gymnasium, tennis courts and football pitch.
Several patients includingBrady and the child rapist James "Wolfman" Saunders, recently complained that they were worried about eating beef from the canteen in case they contracted Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.
During a court case last October, a patient named Byron Tomlinson said that staff had been paid to smuggle in drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. A gang of 10 patients were, he said, able to hold late-night drinking sessions and watch pornographic videos. His psychiatrist, Zona Crispin, agreed in evidence at Liverpool Crown Court that she had been aware of a state of "near anarchy" on one ward. He was cleared of the false imprisonment of two people at the hospital in 1994, after naming four members of staff who he claimed were corrupt.
Ashworth is one of three special hospitals in England that offer psychiatric services for patients who require treatment under conditions of high security. Most patients are admitted under a court order or transferred from prison following a direction from the Home Secretary.
It houses 500 patients, including 120 in the personality disorder unit, the part on which the latest allegations focus. The unit houses people with psychopathic disorders, not schizophrenics. It comprises five locked wards. Each patient has his own room and lavatory and can move freely between the wards, the television lounge and the games room.
The latest allegations have prompted fresh fears for security at the hospital - and the other high-security institutions. Although a spokeswoman for Ashworth stressed that there had been no escape from the hospital grounds, she conceded that several patients had absconded while being escorted by nurses. Last November, a patient, Joe Spence, absconded while being escorted to a medical appointment. There was criticism that he was not handcuffed.
Until last year, Ashworth was managed by the Special Hospitals Service Authority (SHSA) which was abolished on 31 March 1996 when a new special health authority - the Ashworth Hospital Authorities - was set up. The new authority is responsible for managing the special hospital as a separate provider unit in much the same way as other National Health Service hospitals are managed by trusts.Reuse content