... but cells could get own TV

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Thousands of prisoners could get television sets in their cells as part of government proposals to lessen the risks of disorder in Britain's overcrowded jails.

The move sparked accusations from the Conservatives that the Government is reneging on its pre-election commitment to be tough on crime.

Ministers have asked Richard Tilt, director-general of the Prison Service, for proposals on extending the existing ad hoc provision of televisions to all 135 jails in England and Wales.

There are already 2,000 sets in some jails, principally Winchester and Garth, Lancashire, where governors have introduced their own local schemes for rewarding inmates' good behaviour. "We are looking at the possibilities of maybe expanding this," a Prison Service spokesman said.

James Clappison, Conservative Home Affairs spokesman, said: "We think prison conditions should be decent and austere and prisons should be a punishment. We think televisions in cells are not consistent with that. We think it's soft on criminals."

But the Learmont report, which followed the 1995 Parkhurst breakout, recommended television as a way to avoid potentially explosive situations in congested jails. About 200 prisoners are entering prisons each week and the total population stands at a record 63,000.

The proposal has been welcomed by the Prison Governors' Association as a much-needed incentive to good behaviour, although the Prison Service suggested that not all governors would necessarily be in favour.

Security and logistical considerations will also feature in the review. There are concerns that some prisoners might attempt to use the components of sets for unauthorised purposes, while some cells lack mains electricity to plug them in. Ministers are also expected to tread carefully because of the potential costs of a nationwide scheme, which could be several million pounds.

General Sir John Learmont said in his report that television in cells could provide a calming influence and a powerful incentive to good conduct. It could also be used for educational and communication.