Rat find shuts Holloway wing

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Home Affairs Correspondent

Rotting dead rats posing health risks to prisoners and staff have forced the closure of part of the hospital wing at Holloway prison - the latest scandal to hit the troubled north London jail.

Staff were sent home on Tuesday and mentally ill prisoners confined to their cells as day-care facilities of the ground-floor hospital were closed because of what was called "vermin overload". Sources suggested the stench had become overpowering and staff were complaining of illnesses, which they believed may have been linked to the unhealthy conditions.

Pest control experts have been working daily in Britain's largest women's prison, ever since prison inspectors walked out in disgust at the infestation of rats, cockroaches and lice and the "overzealous" security. The concerns of Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, were said to have included the use of manacles on all pregnant women attending hospital - a controversial measure defended by ministers in the Commons yesterday and condemned by Labour.

The only concession made to the prisoners and many of the staff who are unhappy at the use of chains for all women - no matter what their medical condition or threat they might pose - is that pregnant women will no longer be shackled to male officers during hospital visits.

Another concern at the prison is that mothers attending hearings about the care and custody of their children, are also being chained.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers said: "Women are being held in intolerable conditions in Holloway prison. The Prison Service no longer seems to differentiate between male and female prisoners despite their differing needs in terms of medical and child care and the difference in the threat they pose. There needs to be an urgent change in the service's approach."