Cuts may force closure of unfit prison blocks

Jails leak: Howard's plans to scrap renovation work and remove television sets from cells are exposed
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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Significant parts of Britain's jails may be forced to close because they are expected to become unfit for human habitation, a leaked briefing paper to the Home Secretary has disclosed.

It also reveals that Michael Howard is planning to remove televisions from the cells of prisoners in 20 jails - even though he acknowledges that it pacifies inmates and saves on staffing costs. He says television for prisoners does not accord with his "austere regimes".

The paper, seen by the Independent, is a background briefing for Mr Howard's latest meeting with prison staff detailing what he was prepared to tell officers - and what he was not.

One of the items of "background only" information was the fact that most modernisation schemes in the country's 136 jails were being dropped next year and that maintenance spending was to be reduced to the "bare minimum."

With jails already full from a record number of 54,000 inmates, the Prison Service expects to be forced to use police cells as sections of at least 14 jails, which have become unsafe through crumbling infrastructure or unsanitary conditions, are closed.

The report says the effect of the cuts in budgets which leaves the service with pounds 100m to spend on its entire building stock and land "may well be the loss of some accommodation ... because of infrastructure failure owing to inadequate maintenance or because of action by environmental health officers.

"Because margins on likely population and accommodation are so small any loss of accommodation will mean a significant risk of using police cells," its says. The paper also reveals the service is considering the closure of some jails, the merger of others and in the long-term the possible expansion of others.

The briefing document also shows that Mr Howard was able to tell staff that he was going to reject in-cell television - a key recommendation from the Learmont inquiry into security, carried out in the wake of last year's serious escapes. However, he was not prepared to tell staff that those inmates who already have them will be given six months notice of their withdrawal because of the threat to disorder. Nor that unconvicted prisoners on remand will still be allowed to have them.

Mr Howard's "line", as revealed in the documents, is that in-cell television "is incompatible with government policy that prison regimes should be decent but austere".

His meeting with staff was to discuss the impact of the 13 percent budget cuts over the next three years. While his line to staff was that they should do their utmost to maintain education and other out-of cell activities, he would not tell them that 60 per cent of jails were axing education classes.

The briefing paper confirms the 3,000 staff cuts being sought by the service, but reveals that the Treasury is unlikely to fund the costs of redundancies beyond the beginning of 1997 putting even greater strains on prison resources.

Yesterday, Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "This paper makes it clear that prison cuts are compromising inmates' activities as well as internal security. Ministers must learn the lesson that a high incarceration rate is irreconcilable with spending reductions."