Prison cuts raise fears of return to riots

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Work, welfare and education programmes in jails are being axed as governors try to control record numbers of prisoners with shrinking budgets.

Governors and probation officers yesterday warned of the increasing risk of riot and unrest as some jails are confining inmates in cells for longer periods, others are axing probation staff and yet others are considering reducing sex and drug treatment programmes and closing down prison farms and industries.

One governor said he was preparing to halt all education classes from next April, likely to reduce staff numbers and battling to keep afloat a highly successful treatment programme for drugs as he strived to implement a 5 per cent reduction in his budget.

Three prisons, Birmingham, Little Hey and Winchester, propose to axe all probation work, including courses dealing with offending behaviour and family work.

The difficulties already being experienced in the country's 134 prisons calls into question the service's ability to implement many of the 127 recommendations in the Learmont inquiry into prison security and the Parkhurst escape - including the building of an Alcatraz style super secure prison for the country's most dangerous inmates. According to sources no final recommendation will be made until next February.

But it further throws doubt on the ability of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to implement his latest law and order package of tougher penalties for burglars and drugs dealers and reduced remission for prisoners. It has been estimated the package could - if judges do not reduce sentences to take account of loss of remission - boost the already bursting prison population by 20,000.

Internal Prison Service documents seen by the Independent reveal that the jail population, already at an all-time high of 52,521, is rising more sharply than officials had predicted.

During the week of the Conservative Party conference numbers swelled by 452 in four days. Jails have started "doubling up" inmates in single cells and moving others nearing the end of their sentences to less secure open prisons.

Concern that implementation of the cuts by reducing education and work opportunities is "seriously distorting" prison priorities is expressed in another internal memoranda, which warns that short term gains "will be damaging to the long term prospects for inmate employment" and could result in increased costs.

Yesterday, Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that prison conditions were deteriorating to the levels of the late 1980s, identified by Lord Woolf as a trigger for the Strangeways riot.

"The Woolf agenda for reform is gathering dust on the shelf as the service descends into crisis. The Home Secretary cannot have it all ways - increasing the prison population by 12,000 in two years while at the same time drastically cutting budgets."

This week the Prison Governors' Association is expected to urge its members to try and avoid reducing prisoners' out-of-cell activities "in order to main stability and security".

David Roddan, general secretary of the PGA, said: "Forcing governors to close down activities in prisons which are essential to control and security in order to fund tax cuts, will only confirm current contempt for its handling of penal policy.

"How can we be expected to carry out essential work with, for example, sex offenders and drug addicts if they are not prepared to provide the resources."