Lewis defies Howard to avert jail `rebellion'

`I've never known, in 31 years service, prison governors so upset'
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The Independent Online
The prison service yesterday sought to head off a damaging confrontation with governors and staff by appearing to contradict Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, over the removal of the Parkhurst governor.

Yesterday Derek Lewis, the director-general of the Prison Service, assured governors that John Marriott had not been sacked or suspended following last week's escape by three highly dangerous prisoners. Neither was he forever more banned from running another jail.

To Tory backbench cheers in the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Howard had announced Mr Marriott's immediate removal as governor, adding: "Pending the outcome of a disciplinary investigation and any subsequent proceedings he will not be running any other prison in the Prison Service. When he has completed any assistance, which he needs to give to the various inquiries now in hand, he will be taking up non-operational duties elsewhere."

If Mr Marriott is exonerated by the enquiry, he would still not get his job back.

Mr Howard had been heading for a dangerous revolt by governors and staff over the removal of Mr Marriott, and six of his staff, who are also being sent on other duties, apparently on the basis of preliminary findings into the escape by the Prison Servicesecurity director, Richard Tilt.

Yesterday over 100 Parkhurst staff - both administrative and officer ranks, including a prison chaplain - staged an impromptu walk-out.

The Prison Governors' Association is expected today to discuss at a meeting of its national executive committee governors' calls for the "withdrawal of goodwill". The reaction of the governors - not known for their militancy - is said to be unprecedented.

Arriving for the meeting with Mr Lewis yesterday, Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the PGA, said: "I've never known, in 31 years in the Prison Service, prison governors so upset."

The assurances over Mr Marriott's future and Mr Lewis's letter to staff, which praises Mr Marriott for his "dedication, humanity, and courage", may succeed in deflecting trouble. In it, Mr Lewis says there had been no "pre-judgment" of disciplinary proceedings which may follow the breakout inquiry.

After the meeting David Roddan, general secretary, said that what he had heard from the director-general was "in marked contrast to the aspersions cast by Michael Howard" when he inferred there was a need for Parkhurst to have a competent governor quickly.

But Mr Howard cannot afford to alienate those who run the country's jails at a time when there has been upheaval caused by breakouts, riots and suicides, especially when he is forcing through a clamp-down on prisoners' routines that needs sensitive handling.

Yesterday the High Court was told that one such measure - the ending of temporary release for prisoners to visit lawyers - was already being reconsidered by officials in the light of a legal challenge .

Meanwhile, it emerged yesterday that Mr Tilt had made no recommendations for action against named individuals.

Both Home Office and Prison Service sources claimed the decision was made by Mr Lewis as it was an "operational" matter.

"Governors have to know that they are ultimately responsible for their prisons," one said. But prison sources suggested he would not have made such a decision without reference to Mr Howard.