The Close Supervision Centre at Woodhill Prison in Milton Keynes was labelled Britain's Alcatraz when it opened earlier this year. But seven months later the unit is in crisis.
Many prisoners refuse to comply with the regime. "Dirty" protests have been staged and eight of the 15 inmates are taking the Prison Service to court, alleging that the conditions are unlawful.
Staff in the unit are under intense pressure and three senior officials have had to take long-term sick leave.
The unit's best-known inmate, the kidnapper Michael Sams, who abducted an estate agent, has had to be moved to another jail after threats to his life by other prisoners.
The Chief Inspector visited Woodhill in July, and was said to be alarmed by conditions, although he conceded that it was bound to have teething troubles. In a report to the Prison Service, which will be published tomorrow, he will state his intention to return to the unit within a year to see if the regime has improved.
He has warned ministers that without greater consultation the regime could degenerate, with prisoners responding to the punitive conditions by indulging in "more and more desperate behaviour".
The Woodhill project was set up as an alternative to the previous "magic roundabout" system, which saw dangerous and disruptive inmates moved from prison to prison every 28 days to minimise their impact on other prisoners. The regime is based on the premise that prisoners must earn their privileges by good behaviour.
In their action, the inmates say they are denied proper beds and access to radios, that they are locked up for 23 hours a day, segregated from other prisoners and get no education.
Two, Rifat Mehmet, serving 27 years for armed robbery, and Sean O'Conner, serving 12 years also for armed robbery, have been given the right to a judicial review at the High Court, which will serve as a test case for the claims of six fellow inmates.
In support of their action they produced a letter to Richard Tilt, the Director General of the Prison Service, from Stephen Shaw, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, who visited the unit in June. It said: "Far from reinforcing good behaviour, the absence of any privileges or regime on the [structured] wing is encouraging in prisoners allocated there a sense of injustice, legitimate grievance, withdrawal, antagonism and aggression."
Before the unit opened, Phil Wheatley, a Prison Service director, had promised that the emphasis would be "therapeutic rather than punitive".
In reply to Mr Shaw's letter, Mr Tilt said the effectiveness of the unit was under evaluation. "We are dealing with a handful of the most difficult and disruptive inmates in the prison system and that it would be unrealistic to expect all manifestations of disruptive behaviour to be entirely eliminated."
David Wilson, a former governor at Woodhill and academic at the University of Central England, said the special unit was a flawed idea.
"This was a regime designed to appease Michael Howard, the last Home Secretary. It clearly has not worked and is inappropriate," he said.Reuse content