Flagship jail `dead in the water'

Wormwood Scrubs: Inmates allege brutality and racism in a regime which horrified the chief inspector of prisons
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WHEN PEOPLE think of prisons they tend to think of the gatehouse at Wormwood Scrubs. Architecturally stunning and physically imposing, it is the defining image of the Prison Service.

But this proud facade hides a decaying jail whose failure to incorporate modern working methods has left it out of step with other prisons in England and Wales.

In his latest report on the jail, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, said: "Wormwood Scrubs is often referred to as the `flagship' of the Prison Service. It could be said the ship is now dead in the water and has been overtaken by other ships in the line."

Sir David, who said he was "surprised and horrified" by what he discovered, went on: "The out-of-date attitudes that we found have no place in the modern world."

It was in such an atmosphere, prisoners allege, that they were subjected to systematic beatings, racism, burning with cigarettes and having photographs of loved ones ripped up during a six-year period of intimidation by staff.

During his inspection, Sir David heard allegations of the "illegal use of force". In his report of March 1997, he said: "We found nothing to support this during the inspection but we are left with the question why such a strong rumour should be passed around."

More detailed allegations of brutality at the Scrubs, in west London, were made to the Prison Reform Trust and London solicitors Hickman and Rose, who forwarded them to Sir David.

The outcome was a Prison Service inquiry which has given way to the largest criminal investigation ever seen at a jail in this country.

One prisoner alleges he was told: "This is not Highpoint [prison], we'll beat you up down here, because we don't care."

He said officers were "always very careful not to leave marks" and beat him in the back, the sides or the back of the head. Many of the allegations detail attacks said to have been carried out in the prison's segregation unit, known as "the block". As the investigation has grown, nearly 80 prisoners and former inmates have come forward to make allegations.

Another inmate claimed: "One of the officers stamped on my head and I blacked out ... When the officers who had taken me to the block saw that blood was coming out of my right ear they then took me to the hospital."

With nearly 1,400 inmates, Wormwood Scrubs is one of the largest prisons in Europe. It was the scene of rioting in 1979, which led to a long period of strained relations between prisoners and staff.

The Prison Officers' Association has been fully co-operative with the police inquiry, although the allegations have been received with outrage by officers at Wormwood Scrubs.

Last April, when the criminal investigation began at the jail, more than 100 officers failed to turn up for work after reporting in sick.

Richard Tilt, the director-general of the Prison Service, ordered in 80 governor grade and other managerial staff to help run the jail and said: "We must assume that this is a protest action."

Since the allegations surfaced, several of the complaining prisoners say they have been subjected to further intimidation designed to persuade them not to co-operate with the inquiry.