Jails watchdog angry at Home Office delays

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The Independent Online
The Government is controversially withholding the publication of 25 potentially embarrassing reports into prison conditions compiled by Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Sir David is believed to be "deeply frustrated" at the delays, which he promised he would not allow when he was appointed to the post last year.

Delays in the publication of the reports had infuriated his predecessor, Judge Stephen Tumim, but Sir David too has now been snubbed.

The Independent can reveal that some of the reports relate to inspections which took place up to 11 months ago.

George Howarth, Labour's prisons spokesman, said: "This is both highly suspicious, given the imminence of a general election, and deeply disturbing since it seriously undermines the chief inspector's independence.

"People have a right to expect that once he has made his inspections and forwarded his report it should be made public without ministerial interference."

The Government faces further embarrassment because a female governor is suing the prison service for sex discrimination. Kate Dawson, a governor at Risley prison in Cheshire, claims she was passed over for promotion in favour of male rivals.

Her experience contrasts with that depicted in the television drama series The Governor, which was written by Lynda La Plante and which showed a woman governor succeeding in a male-dominated prison service.

The discrimination case is due to be heard on Tuesday in Manchester.

Mrs Dawson has been a governor for more than 20 years after joining the prison service through a graduate training scheme. She is in her fifties.

She is in charge of the inmates in the women's prison at Risley and has been an outspoken critic of the conditions suffered by female inmates.

Sir David visited the jail in August but his report has still not been published.

However, The Independent has obtained a copy of a paper prepared by Sir David's deputy, Colin Allen, which gives a damning insight into the state of the jail. It paints a picture of gangs of violent drug-dealing women inmates running amok.

It notes that Sir David is so concerned by the state of the women's prison system that he has ordered a thematic study of women's jails which is due to be published shortly.

Mr Allen reports that during his visit, staff reported that "a series of quite brutal sexual assaults had been perpetrated on a number of women at Risley by a gang of women prisoners as part of their desire to smuggle drugs into the prison".

He goes on: "Almost as part of [women's] emancipation there appears to be a discernible growth in violent behaviour directed at others."

Some inmates have resorted to self-mutilation. An inquest into the suicide of a woman inmate is due to be heard.

The publication of the inspection report into Risley has twice been postponed. Other delays have been even longer. The report of an inspection of Dartmoor prison last February is still unpublished.

Sources at HM Inspectorate of Prisons said the delays were caused by the private offices of Home Office ministers repeatedly questioning the prison service over points of detail. "These reports are supposed to help take prisons forward but because of these delays they end up becoming historical documents," said one inspector.