Prisons chief warns jails are degenerating into `mini-Scrubs'

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ONE IN five jails in England and Wales are in danger of degenerating into versions of the notorious Wormwood Scrubs, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned. Sir David Ramsbotham denounced the prisons as "mini- Wormwood Scrubs", in a reference to the west London jail he recommended should be closed or privatised following a scathing inspection report.

Most of the prisons are urban, overcrowded Victorian "local" jails, containing a mixture of sentenced and unsentenced prisoners. Sir David said yesterday that staff tend to show minimal interest in looking after inmates, who spend most of their time locked up and are often denied access to exercise and visits to the chapel. Friends and relatives are rudely treated by staff during visits. Many inmates feel unsafe and some are placed in double cells with those who are dangerous or mentally disordered.

Recent inspection reports indicate that the jails Sir David has in mind include Chelmsford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Stafford, Exeter and Wandsworth in south-west London. "There are `mini-Wormwood Scrubs' in all the Victorian locals. They have all got some elements of a negative culture," Sir David said.

He is also understood to be concerned at conditions and industrial relations in some women's prisons, such as Holloway in London and Bulwood Hall in Essex and at the male young offenders' institution at Feltham in Middlesex.

Sir David told The Independent: "There are elements of negative culture of some form or another in 20 per cent of prisons. The attitude I am against is one that sees prisoners as subordinates and is judgemental about their crime, which is not the job of prison staff.

"The staff's responsibility is to look after prisoners with humanity and prepare them to live a law-abiding life within prison and on their release."

Sir David said he had been inundated with letters from Prison Service staff following his damning report on Wormwood Scrubs in June, thanking him for bringing the problem of staff negativity out into the open.

"For too long people have felt held-back and intimidated by these people," he said. "They feel that at last something is being done. What I hope is that people will now have the courage to come forward and report examples of alleged brutality without being inhibited from doing so."

Sir David published an inspection report yesterday on Exeter prison, describing it as a "mini-Wormwood Scrubs" and accusing the jail's branch of the Prison Officers' Association (POA) of "industrial anarchy".

But the chief inspector said that he did not entirely blame the negative culture in many prisons on the 30,000-strong POA. "I am a great supporter of staff associations and I think they are absolutely essential in a service like this," he said. "I would like to see them being constructive and taking things forward."

Some prisons, notably Wayland in Norfolk and Huntercombe young offenders' institution in Oxfordshire, have been identified by the prisons inspectorate as outstanding examples of a positive prison culture.

Sir David also points out that the "negative culture" syndrome is not a problem in top-security prisons and so cannot be blamed on difficult or dangerous inmates. Sir David said he had confidence that the prisons director-general, Martin Narey, would take action to reverse the problem.

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