The ultimate prison visitor achieves her magic number

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The Independent Online
Ann Widdecombe arrived yesterday at Spring Hill prison, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on the final leg of her mission to visit every prison in the country.

Spring Hill, set in 190 acres of rolling hills and farmland, cannot be said to suffer from overcrowding. In fact, it is one inmate short of full capacity, 210. A relatively pleasant venue for the Home Office Minister's 129th, and final call. Still, no one was quite sure yesterday why she should embark on such an odyssey in the first place. One prison official posited, sotto voce, a possible explanation: "Well you do get football nuts who wish to visit every league ground in the land."

That is not to say Ms Widdecombe was not made welcome. To mark her achievement, prison officials presented her with a commemorative cake stating "129 - Widdecombe whirlwind tour 1995-1997."

But the cake did nothing to sweeten the minister's hard-line views on crime and punishment. She said protests from governors and prison officers about a system at breaking point would not deter the Government from going ahead with the Crime Bill, expected to mean an increase in the prison population.

Asked if there would be a rethink about the use of custodial sentences, she said: "Certainly not. We shall be building more prisons instead. There will be a dozen more prisons needed to cope and we shall build them. There is a prison ship due to arrive, and we are also looking at a number of other options.

"The Prison Governors Association know very well that we haven't been idle. We have produced 8,000 more places, we are trying to find other sites. We have had setbacks, and obviously they are unwelcome. We have had problems with the former holiday camp, and we shall probably appeal on that."

Ms Widdecombe admitted that the lack of space may lead to more use of police cells, but added: "They are relatively expensive, and not a satisfactory solution. We do not want to use them on a long-term basis."

During the walkabout the minister listened to the views of inmates and staff. One prisoner complained about the food and said with a grin he would prefer steak and chips. Her aides, mindful of allegations - vigorously denied - that the Home Secretary's wife, Sandra, had said prisoners got "more than they deserved", would not be drawn. Ms Widdecombe was unfazed and simply promised: "I'll pass that on to Michael Howard."