Open jails to be closed or fenced

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About three-quarters of all open prisons are to be closed or made more secure because an increasing number of criminals cannot be trusted in them, according to leaked Government documents. The Prison Service also intends to introduce a network of rehabilitation units to help offenders gain job skills before leaving jail.

In the biggest shake up of the open jail system since it was introduced in 1933 the Prison Service has recommended the closure of five prisons and the conversion of nine to more secure establishments. Documents seen by the Independent show that of the 20 existing prisons housing category D inmates - 12 of which are exclusively open - only six will remain.

Inmates under 21 should no longer be kept in open conditions, the report by Tony Pearson, the service's director of Security and Programmes. says. He also proposes to build about 14 new resettlement units, where prisoners go to learn skills before they move back into the general community.

The moves follow a review of open and resettlement prisons, and the Prison Service is now drawing up an action plan to act upon the report's conclusions.

The decision to reduce drastically the number of open prisons from about 4,400 spaces to 1,900 has been prompted by a rise in the level of absconding and intrusions by prisoners convicted of violent offences and problems with drugs. In the year to March 1994, there were more than 1,100 instances of absconding from open establishments.

The changes also fit in with the belief of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that a tough regime is the best deterrent for would-be criminals.

While accepting that open prison do have a role, the report states that in future short-term offenders should be kept in minimum security prisons, which would be fenced and have a secure induction unit. Only medium- and long-term prisoners who have passed a risk-assessment test and have served some of their sentence under closed conditions will be allowed in open jails. "These fundamental points are not for further debate," Mr Pearson states in his report sent to prison governors.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said of the proposals: "This is a logical consequence of the Home Secretary's obsession with austerity, his prison works policy, and contempt of home leave.

"The concept of the open prison remains a positive one. The erection of fences is regrettable but the extension of resettlement units is welcomed."