Jail 'sent woman to court in nightdress'

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Holloway prison "degraded" a woman by sending her to court wearing only her "nightie and negligee", a scathing report into the country's largest women' jail has revealed.

News that the prison has shut the voluntary clothing service, leaving many inmates - particularly the mentally ill, homeless and foreign nationals - without basic items such as shoes and underwear, is the latest scandal to hit the troubled prison.

It comes in the annual report of the jail's Board of Visitors, which paints a picture of a management on the point of collapse, with demotivated staff, running a squalid jail with some inmates being locked in their cells for 20 hours a day. Poor health care, lack of education and activities and an increase in drug-related bullying and assault are condemned in the report, which calls on the Home Secretary for action and assurances.

The prison in north London last hit the headlines, when the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, walked out in disgust at the infestation of rats, cockroaches and lice and "overzealous" security - in particular the use of manacles and chains on pregnant and seriously ill women attending hospital. He has still not returned to the jail to complete the inspection.

The ensuing outcry eventually forced an about-turn by the Government over the use of shackles on pregnant women - concerns also raised by the Board of Visitors. It also reveals that large amounts of inmates' cash went missing from registered post going in and out of the troubled prison. And that some inmates were locked in their cells for such prolonged periods over weekends that they could not bath or shower.

"The board believes that lack of purposeful regime was profoundly damaging to the ethos of the prison and to the lives of inmates," concludes the report. "It is demeaning, inhumane and damaging to mental and physical health to keep women isolated and locked in their cells with little respite."

But it acknowledges that there have been some major improvements since January, when Mike Sheldrick became the new governor.

Sources suggested that five bin bags full of rats were carried out of jail, grass is now growing over the "rat runs", and the filth has been cleared. Women are not being locked in cells for such long periods and new senior medical staff have improved health facilities within the jail.

But concerns remain about the plight of teenagers, the mentally ill and Category A high-risk offenders. Furthermore, there is still no clothing provision at the jail for the foreign, homeless and mentally ill women, among its 500-plus population. "It is a fundamental right of women to be decently clothed. It is basic to justice that they should be well presented for court appearances," the report says. It is deplorable that management has been unable to provide for this."

Rachel Palmer, the outgoing chairman said: "The complex needs of Holloway and the female population were not fully understood. Help was too little and too late."