Forsyth set to back British Alcatraz plan

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THE Government is planning to build a British Alcatraz - a single jail for the most dangerous prisoners in the country.

Sir John Learmount, the ex-army general appointed by the Home Office to investigate prison security after a string of embarrassing escapes, will recommend that all the maximum security prisoners in Britain should be housed in one jail when his report is published next month.

Michael Forsyth, the Prisons Minister, indicated yesterday that he would support the controversial proposal. He said that Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, was already looking at how a "super prison" could work.

"I have not received his advice yet," he said. "But we cannot be complacent about the way the prisons are working at the moment." Home Office sources said the jail would be new and added that they may consider whether to have armed guards.

At present, disruptive and serious criminals are "dispersed" in special secure units around the prison system.

Prison reformers yesterday attacked ministers for again looking to America for ideas on how to fight crime, saying it was "bizarre" to follow a country which had 1.4m in jail (five times as many per thousand of population as England and Wales) and electrocuted, poisoned and hanged murderers but still had a murder rate 10 times higher than Britain's.

But Sir John, who visited the United States while he was compiling his report, will quote research showing how American- style "super prisons" cut re-offending.

The jail will not only house terrorists and major-league criminals, but difficult offenders ordinary prisons cannot handle. Last month it was revealed that Charlie McGhee, who was serving life for armed robbery, died of a heart attack after he had been passed round 21 prisons in about 30 months.

In the latest issue of its in-house journal, the Prison Service has prepared the ground for the policy U-turn by quoting the example of Marion prison in Illinois. The jail operates a "lock-down" system of virtually complete sensory deprivation. Inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells and only emerge in handcuffs and chains.

A study of 56 released prisoners, which Sir John will quote in his report, found that half committed further offences. Nearly all of these convictions were for drug abuse. Only two committed offences against the person. The results match earlier findings from studies of released inmates from Alcatraz, which was closed in 1963.

Last week many Home Office officials were saying privately that a super prison would be vulnerable to mass breakouts or terrorist attacks. They warned that staff confronted with having to control a large population of very dangerous inmates would either appease them or institute a brutal regime which would breach British and European prison rules.

But after the attempted escape of IRA men from Whitemoor prison and revelations of the easy life enjoyed by inmates in the Cambridgeshire jail, ministers are in no mood to listen to doubters.

Nick Flynn, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that the plan showed that the Home Office had no ideas on crime except to copy America.

Harry Fletcher, from the probation officers' union NAPO, added that "we cannot get a grip on law and order simply by building bigger and bigger prisons".