Sir David Ramsbotham said the regimes at ordinary local prisons were being "decimated" to pay for the upgrading of security at the six high-security "dispersal" jails.
He questioned whether all the pounds 150m worth of improvements recommended by Sir John Woodcock's report into the 1994 Whitemoor jail break by six high-security inmates, including five IRA men, had proved value for money.
His criticisms yesterday were included in a report on one of the dispersal prisons, Full Sutton in York, which was the scene of serious rioting earlier this year. The other dispersal jails are Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire, Long Lartin in Worcestershire, Frankland near Durham, Belmarsh in south- east London and Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
Sir David's comments came in the week it was announced that Full Sutton's Special Secure Unit, a maximum security "prison-within-a prison", was being "mothballed" following a downgrading of the security status of the IRA prisoners held there.
Sir David, who completed his report before the announcement, said that he was concerned about the conditions inside the special units. "Their claustrophobic atmosphere affects staff as well as prisoners, and they must be looked after as well," he said.
He added that he believed there was scope for cuts in the budget at Full Sutton, and that he had found a "very marked" contrast between conditions and resources available at the dispersal jails compared with the rest of the prison estate.
"It has been described as `them and us' and it feels like it," Sir David said. "I cannot argue with the need to maintain security, particularly in high- security prisons, but I wonder if the Woodcock improvements, as implemented at Full Sutton, represent real value for money in contrast with the impoverishment one finds elsewhere.
"That in the order of an additional pounds 2m per year is needed to pay the extra staff costs must not only be the envy of other governors who see their regimes decimated, but must suggest that a balance needs to be struck in the context of the prison budget as a whole."
Sir David said that staff at Full Sutton were now clearly in control of the prison after the serious rioting earlier this year caused damage set at hundreds of thousands of pounds.
However, he warned that the way prisoners' complaints were being treated by in a cavalier way by some officers suggested that some complacency could be creeping in.Reuse content