Howard was warned about Holloway chaos

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was personally warned about the deteriorating conditions in Holloway women's jail last March - nine months before prison inspectors walked out in disgust.

He was sent a letter from the jail's Board of Visitors alerting him to the fact that the system was breaking down and the jail faced the threat of disturbances. Enclosed were copies of a catalogue of complaints the board had already sent to Derek Lewis, the then director-general of the Prison Service, and Michael Forsyth, the then prisons minister.

But conditions continued to slide into chaos and squalor until earlier this month, when the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham, walked out of the north London jail demanding emergency action.

Sir David was said to have been shocked by "overzealous security" at the jail which included chaining women in hospital visits, the lack of any visible care for the large numbers of vulnerable women among the 500- plus population and disgusted by the infestation of rats and cockroaches attracted by parcels of faeces and food thrown from windows and left to rot.

But many of these issues had been addressed by the board, when it alerted ministers to the jail's problems in March. Its catalogue of concerns included overcrowding, poor management, low staffing levels and a concentration on security issues at a cost of worsening conditions for the women inmates. It is understood the board highlighted the fact that some remand prisoners had been locked in their cells for all but two out of 48 hours over a weekend.

The board was concerned that overworked staff had insufficient time to deal with prisoners' problems, with drug abuse or with bullying and that dedicated staff were being struck down by stress and long hours. In particular, it was concerned that the regime did not allow for the special needs of Holloway's population - offenders as young as 15 and 16, the mentally ill, high numbers of foreign nationals, women with serious health and drug problems, as well as high- risk prisoners.

The letters were followed up by a meeting between board members and Mr Lewis the following May. But Rachel Palmer, the retiring chairwoman of the board, said that while assurances were given that there would be a thorough review of the jail and the specials needs of women in jail in general, there was no practical improvement at Holloway.

It was only after Anne Widdecombe, the present prisons minister, visited in July and was said to have been "shocked" by what she saw, that pounds 300,000 was found to recruit more staff.

However, Mrs Palmer warned that unless there were fundamental changes at the jail, it would be difficult to bring about the much-needed improvements. "The jail needs the resources and flexibility to be able to provide the structured yet caring environment for these women that society demands," she said.