Penal reformers warned it could lead to more riots, and John Alderson, former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, warned: 'The more beastly you treat people in prison, the more beastly they become when they come out.'
Tougher treatment for offenders was seen as part of Mr Howard's attempts to placate the right wing of the Tory party at the annual conference in October. It was welcomed by Sir Ivan Lawrence, the right-wing Tory chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, but Teddy Taylor, another right-wing Tory MP, warned that concentrating more on work than play would require more prison staff, and that would cost more, not less.
'I believe what the Home Secretary should do is to tell people how things are, instead of trying to give the impression that prisons are easy, happy, relaxing places where prisoners sit back in an armchair and watch television. That's just not the case,' he said on BBC radio.
The prospect of harsher regimes in prisons was played down by Home Office ministerial sources and Derek Lewis, the Director General of the prison service. They denied that any such initiative would be a reversal of policies set out in the Woolf report on the prison service, which followed the Strangeways riot, and the 1991 White Paper, which called for more constructive use to be made of prisoners' time.
Ministerial sources said Mr Howard wanted prisons to win more private contracts for work for items such as electrical goods and craft work on sale in charity shops, and to reward prisoners more for producing saleable items than for sweeping up or cooking inside jail.
Mr Howard, who is on holiday, ordered the review for a meeting of Home Office ministers and senior civil servants on 10 September. They will discuss prisons as part of a wide-ranging review of measures on crime and punishment for the next session of Parliament, which party managers hope will help to revive Tory morale.
A leaked internal home office memorandum for the meeting by Miss J MacNaughton, his principal private secretary, said: 'The Home Secretary wants to take a more radical look at the nature of the prison experience for inmates.
'He is very concerned that in many prisons, particularly new establishments, prisoners enjoy standards of comfort which many taxpayers would find hard to understand and which it is difficult to justify in the current expenditure climate. Regimes also are, in the Home Secretary's words, 'too lax'.'
The memo said that Mr Howard 'inclines to the view that prisoners should spend more time working, and less time on activities most people would regard as leisure . . . . He does not think sporting activities undertaken purely for fun should be a prominent part of the custodial experience.'
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: 'It will directly cause violence in prisons towards staff and immense feelings of resentment if prisoners' activities are curtailed.
'It will lead to riots and it may even be the cause of suicides.'
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