Ministers knew about jail squalor months ago

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Ministers were warned months ago about appalling conditions in Holloway jail but failed to halt the decline, which prompted the unprecedented walk-out by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The board of visitors at Britain's biggest women's prison wrote earlier this year, warning of staff shortages, squalor, inmates locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and inhumane treatment. Their message was said to have been repeated to Ann Widdecombe, the prisons minister, when she visited the jail in July.

Yesterday it was alleged one pregnant prisoner had been shackled to a male officer while undergoing an anti-natal examination, as part of the "over-zealous security" regime that was identified by the Chief Inspector before he halted the inspection and demanded emergency action.

Holloway sources said General Sir David Ramsbotham was horrified by the infestation of rats, cockroaches and lice in the jail and by parcels of faeces and food thrown from windows and left to rot. Sir David, who only took up the post earlier this month, was said to have been shocked also by the lack of visible care for the large numbers of vulnerable women among the 500 strong population - the mentally ill, the abused and foreign nationals.

Yesterday 16 extra staff were drafted in to help with a crisis in staffing, which has led to what has been described as, on occasion, a "virtual lock- down". Janet King, the governor, has apparently requested 66 extra staff. Staff were said to be exhausted, were owed 4,000 hours off in lieu of extra work, and were dogged by ill-health.

It was suggested the inspector had already identified management failings, which may undermine the governor's role.

Yesterday Richard Tilt, acting director general, said there was "no excuse" for filthy conditions. There are also concerns at the over-emphasis on security, introduced by the governor after the Parkhurst and Whitemoor escapes. The Learmont inquiry itself questioned the degree of security under which women were being held, recommending accommodation "being run as self-contained homes". But the opposition yesterday said cuts of more than 13 per cent over the next three years would only make problems worse. Labour's prisons spokesman, Gerald Howarth, said: "With a prison population at over 52,500 and set to rise to over 56,000 in the next 6 to 12 months, the Prison Service is facing a crisis."

Shocking sight, page 2