Brixton, Holloway and Dartmoor jails are labelled the worst in England

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The Independent Online

Three jails were officially labelled the worst in England and Wales by the Prison Service yesterday.

Brixton and Holloway, both in London, and Dartmoor in Devon were given the lowest "grade one" rating in the first published "league tables" of 138 prisons. They were judged to be failing to "provide secure, ordered or decent regimes" or to hit key performance targets.

Ministers hope the public embarrassment will spur them to drive up standards, but critics complained it could pile more pressure on staff as they struggle to cope with record overcrowding.

The conditions faced by pregnant teenage girls at Holloway, a women's prison, were condemned this year as "wholly inadequate" by Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons. She complained of "severe deficits" in the prison regime.

In January, Ms Owers described Dartmoor as "the prison time forgot" after inspectors found officers locking suicidal prisoners in an "appalling" wire mesh cage. She said that inmates were routinely abused and degraded by officers.

An updated report this month found the jail "safer and less oppressive", but said more work remained to complete its transition.

Recent inspectors' reports into Brixton have also been scathing, with claims that officers were running a "jail within a jail" and victimising black inmates. It was offered for privatisation in 2001, but there has been no interest.

Dartmoor has already started a programme of "performance testing", with the threat of privatisation if it fails to raise standards.

The league table was topped by Frankland in Durham, Lancaster Farms in Lancaster, Usk/Prescoed in Monmouthshire, Whatton in Nottingham and privately-run Altcourse in Liverpool.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "These tables may be a useful management tool for the prison service, but they don't tell the public anything new. The effect is simply to name and shame without putting problems in context."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "These tables raise more questions than they answer."