Prepare for the kick-off

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The Independent Online
The crisis in Britain's prisons can be presented statistically. Current capacity in 129 prisons is 60,013. Current population is 59,156. This number is rising at an average rate of 350 a week. That means the population will exceed capacity within three weeks. A prison barge with space for 500 low-security prisoners will hardly make a difference, even if the Home Office gets the necessary planning permission. The crisis can be described in human terms. Chris Scott, chairman of the Prison Governor's Association, speaks of a day-to-day struggle. Prisoners speak of a kick-off. They don't mean football; it is their term for a prison riot. The word inside is that a kick-off is imminent. These five stories of life behind bars help explain the dreadful reality behind the warning voices.

MARY'S TALE

Mary is a middle-aged, middle-class office worker who was sent to prison for theft and fraud . She was released in February.

' Women's prisons are not categorised like men's, which go from A to D, roughly in keeping with the degree of risk attached to the prisoners. Women just have open and closed prisons, and everyone is thrown in together - sex offenders, drug addicts, murderers and some poor women who swindled pounds 50 on their child allowance.

This makes an ideal situation for bullying and intimidation. I had never encountered drugs before, but I was offered everything, including heroin and cocaine, in return for telephone cards. The drugs tests are mandatory and these have had the strange effect of making the women switch to harder, class A drugs because cannabis, a soft drug, stays in the bloodstream longer and is easier to detect. The only thing you can't get is an alcoholic drink.

Only lifers have cells to themselves; others have to double up. The meals are disgusting, which is not a surprise when you realise that the daily budget is pounds 1.50 a prisoner. They are full of stodge and very unhealthy, the women get fat and unfit because there is so little exercise.

There is a perfectly good gym in there but it is not in use because of staff shortages. Meals are frequently served in cells which is unhygienic as there are lavatories in the cells. You are lucky to get a bath once a week. In the morning you have exactly 45 minutes to get a shower and breakfast and, if you're lucky, some exercise.

There is no power point in the cells, just an overhead light, so there is no question of TV or anything like that. I'm a church-goer and the first Sunday at Holloway I went to the prison church. It took a full half- an- hour to pass through the jail. The women are treated like cattle. '

A WRITER'S TALE

Linda Kempton is a writer who has worked with the inmates of Gartree Prison in Leicestershire since 1995. Her contract ends in May. She is not being replaced.

' I came to like and respect everyone I worked with. Criminals are not so different from everyone else but the trouble is most people don't want to have their ideas about criminals challenged and are quite happy to believe the fiction that they are in some ways alien life forms.

It is definitely true that prisoners appreciate whatever educational facilities they can get, but I do appreciate that the staff have to work within incredibly tight budgets and at times you get the feeling that the decisions being made are between loo paper and writing paper. It is as basic as that. '

PETER'S TALE.

Peter is 41, and had been in prison previously before spending six months in Canterbury prison on remand while facing drugs-smuggling charges. When his case did come to court, all charges were dropped.

' Prisoners are banged up from 3.30 pm on Saturday and Sunday and not let out until about 8am the following day. While I was inside they dropped the Tuesday visits because of lack of staff and that caused a lot of grief. Then there are the drugs. Despite the weekly piss tests you can get virtually everything in there which probably isn't surprising as about half of them in there were junkies before they went in.

On paper the food usually sounds all right. I remember one Saturday, the menu was roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots and greens, but it was almost inedible. The chicken was all legs, stiff like they'd been boiled. The potatoes were full of eyes, and carrots hadn't been properly peeled and the cabbage simply stank.

The Home Secretary has put so much tension into the system that something's got to give. When they do kick off, it will be a blood bath. '

A WARDER'S TALE

Duncan Keys, a prison officer for 15 years, is currently serving in Britain's biggest jail, Wormwood Scrubs, in west London.

' Wormwood Scrubs is a very unhappy ship. We had a major walk-out two weeks ago, mostly over the management which is showing itself to be very inflexible towards the staff. In all the length of my service I can honestly say that the morale and atmosphere is now as low as I have ever known it.

Last year we had a budget cut of 13 per cent and they offered early retirement to 1,500 staff. In the event 6,000 applied and what they thought would be a morale-lifting gesture ended up having the opposite effect because so many people were disappointed not to be able to go. Despite that, it still means that this year the service is 1,500 experienced officers down on last year's total.

The new regime is extremely heavy on paperwork, everything has to be written in duplicate which means that officers are more desk-bound. Prison officers feel a sense of responsibility to offer an efficient and as humane as possible environment in prisons. We don't want to return to being just turnkeys, but to avoid that we need more staff. What we have now is not a safe system of working.

We have 1,200 inmates at Wormwood Scrubs which is a category B prison. Currently we are coping with problems we were never intended to have. C wing has 400 prisoners, among that number we could have anything up to 15 or 20 care-in- the-community cases. In the old days they would have been in secure mental institutions. Now these raving lunatics are mixed in with prisoners and it has a bad effect. Most are in for minor offences and don't stay around long enough to be properly assessed.

I'm sick of hearing people say that prison doesn't work. It's not given a chance to work. Our time to work with the prisoners is cut back and back; we need more resources and by that I mean manpower. After all an effective prison is not simply about a building, it's about having the trained the staff to run it. '

A PSYCHIATRIST'S TALE

Bob Johnson set up a pioneering unit inside Parkhurst Prison designed to reduce inmates' levels of violence. Last year his unit was shut down.

' Everyone in the wider world accepts the phenomenon of road rage but I can tell you there is a such a thing as prison rage. They do not have the vote and no other way of expressing themselves short of violence. In the past, under the old regime there was a tacit agreement that the cons would never kill a screw. I don't believe that old understanding exists in the same way anymore.

Men locked in cells for 23 hours a day become mentally unhinged. It is a recipe for disaster. Everyone connected with prisons has told the Government the same thing but Mr Howard is determined not to listen to anyone and just plough on along his ideological guidelines. I despair at times.

In my opinion the risk of lethal violence is now unacceptably high. If things carry on as they are now I would not be surprised to see a roof coming off just as it did in Strangeways. And, for a management that is driven by costs, it is worth recalling that Strangeways cost between pounds 80m and pounds 100m to rebuild.

Everything started to go wrong in 1993 when the current Home Secretary took office. It is clear now that he set about dismantling the Woolf recommendations and now we are poised at the edge of the precipice once more. '

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