Howard warned of jail turmoil

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There were warnings of tension in jails last night after the High Court threw out a prisoner's challenge to Michael Howard's decision to suspend the controversial early release scheme.

The fears by penal groups - and renewed political fall-out - came with the confirmation that the Home Secretary had been advised that he had no legal right to recall the 537 prisoners wrongly freed early under the guidance from Richard Tilt, head of the Prison Service.

Speaking after a judicial review brought by John Naughton, an inmate at Lindholme jail, Doncaster, was rejected by two judges, Paul Cavadino, chair of the Penal Affairs Consortium, said: "If this decision is not overturned on appeal, it is bound to increase tension in prisons. Prisoners who have been expecting early release but do not get it will feel angry and resentful. They will feel especially frustrated because over 500 fellow prisoners in the same position were released before the Home Secretary's intervention, and this is bound to seem particularly unfair."

Mr Howard was hoping that the court ruling would draw a line under the early release fiasco. But his lack of power, according to legal advice, to require the 537 to return to jail served only to reinforce the ineptitude of the past week.

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This is a common-sense ruling which raises even more questions about how this dreadful shambles began in the first place. Subject to an appeal, the decision means that more than 500 prisoners have been released into the community before serving their sentences in full. The public will not lightly forgive Michael Howard and the Tory government for such irresponsible bungling."

Lord Justice Simon Brown said the court's reasons for refusing Naughton's application would be given next week. But the other judge, Mr Justice Popplewell, made clear that he thought the new instruction to prison governors to take into account time spent on remand in custody for each consecutive sentence was "an absurdity" which could not have been intended by Parliament. "Common sense is still part of the common law, isn't it?" he demanded of Naughton's counsel.

Mr Justice Popplewell said that under the guidelines a man who spent a year remanded in custody and was then sentenced to a year's jail for each of 10 offences consecutively would be released immediately, whereas an accomplice given bail would face 10 years.

A Prison Service spokeswoman said governors and staff would explain to prisoners that the law had now been clarified and that early release could no longer be expected. Contingency plans to deal with unrest would be activated in the event of any protests, she added.

Naughton had argued that he should have been released on 24 December last year and was entitled to compensation of up to pounds 95 a day. He must now spend another month in jail after being sentenced to two 18-month consecutive sentences in 1995. A similar application by another prisoner, Sean Smith, was also dismissed.

Letters, page 11,

Section Two