Efforts by senior managers to raise the standard of care in the institutions, which doctors say would improve safety, have been met by obstruction and threats, according to Professor Elaine Murphy, former vice-chairman of the Mental Health Act Commission.
One senior manager who sought police advice after being threatened found a fake grenade under his car. Other staff have received hate mail and complained of victimisation and bullying.
Professor Murphy, chairman of the City and Hackney Community Health Services Trust, says in the British Medical Journal that a large group of staff at Broadmoor, Rampton and Ashworth, have a damaging influence on standards of care through their authoritarian and denigrating attitude to patients.
Echoing repeated criticisms by the Mental Health Act Commission over more than a decade, she says the hospitals suffer from an "impoverished regime, overly restrictive regulations and lack of therapeutic optimism" - the blame for which must be laid at the door of the Prison Officers' Association (POA) which has 1,000 members in the three hospitals.
Until the mid-1980s, the hospitals - which have been the subject of repeated scandals - were run by the Home Office as an extension of the Prison Service but were taken over by the NHS last year. But although hospital staff are officially designated as nurses, many have retained the membership, and outlook, of the POA.
Calling on the next Secretary of State for Health to derecognise the POA, Professor Murphy says the union must be ousted or the hospitals closed and their inmates moved elsewhere if the culture and values are to change. The most dangerous mentally disordered offenders are now cared for in regional secure units, NHS and private psychiatric hospitals which run more liberal regimes but with no less safety and without the problems that have dogged the special hospitals.
Professor Murphy adds: "The choice is a stark one: either the hospitals must close or they must change completely."
Broadmoor hospital and the Prison Officers Association yesterday dismissed Professor Murphy's views as out of date. She was a member of the 1992 Ashworth inquiry which exposed a brutal regime, and the POA said her comments dated back to before then. It added: "This is a scurrilous attack. Her allegations of threats and intimidation are clearly unfounded."Reuse content