Durham jail 'oppressive and not fit to hold women'

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The Independent Online

High-security prisoners, including the serial killer Rosemary West, are to be moved out of a jail denounced today by inspectors as "oppressive and claustrophobic" and unsuitable for holding women.

High-security prisoners, including the serial killer Rosemary West, are to be moved out of a jail denounced today by inspectors as "oppressive and claustrophobic" and unsuitable for holding women.

The Home Office acted as the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, protested that the grim conditions at Durham Prison, which has been hit by a spate of suicides, aggravated the "distress and disorder" faced by inmates.

In one of her most scathing reports, she demanded the closure of the women's wing at the Victorian jail, which has been handling high-risk female prisoners for 30 years.

She said: "Durham is a constricted and forbidding physical environment, with little space for association or activity on the enclosed wings and a particularly dispiriting and bleak exercise yard. This is scarcely likely to enhance the mental state of women who are feeling depressed and anxious and who may spend years in this environment."

Six women have killed themselves at the jail in two years and Ms Owers listed a series of "systemic failures" in the handling of prisoners at risk of self-harm. She said: "We found good examples of staff caring for some very damaged women, but it was clear the high levels of disorder of a few women made it very difficult to pick up and deal with the quiet despair of others, such as lifers at particular times in sentences." She said there was "insufficient constructive activity" for inmates who were a long way from their families, no strategy for tackling drug abuse and no help with resettlement after release.

The women's wing of the 700-inmate jail holds about 100 women. Among the male populartion are a number of high-risk prisoners, including Michael Sams, who is serving four life sentences for murdering Julie Dart and kidnapping the estate agent Stephanie Slater. Past female prisoners have included the Moors murderer Myra Hindley and IRA terrorists.

In an announcement coinciding with the inspection report, the Prison Service said Durham was being "re-roled" to become a "community prison". Its female inmates will be transferred to new jails at Ashford in Middlesex and Peterborough while "category A" male prisoners will be moved to other high-security prisons.

Martin Narey, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said Durham's and staff had carried out "a very complex job in difficult circumstances". He said: "They have been looking after a great variety of prisoners, both men and women, with very different needs. The pressures they are working under are enormous and yet, despite that, as I witnessed on a very recent visit, there is lots of evidence of real care for prisoners and a determination, against very difficult obstacles, to make a reality of resettlement."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The Home Office's policy on women offenders is shot with contradictions. On the one hand it is launching an action plan to reduce women's imprisonment and on the other investing an extra £16m in new jail units for juvenile girls."