Isolation is driving 'Alcatraz' prisoners to be more disruptive, warns inspector

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The Independent Online

Conditions at the "Alcatraz" units for the most dangerous prisoners in England and Wales are so harsh that they are in breach of official rules, the Chief Inspector of Prisons claims today.

Sir David Ramsbotham says that prisoners are being driven to even more disruptive behaviour by being subjected to "chronic social isolation" which can "jeopardise their mental health". He calls for inmates segregated in D wing of the close supervision centre (CSC) at Woodhill prison, Buckinghamshire, to be given access to radios and educational material and allowed greater contact with other people.

In a report published today, Sir David says: "Prisoners were locked up all the time other than for one hour of segregated exercise each day in the caged exercise yards and for showers three times a week. On all these occasions they were unlocked separately by the senior officer and five officers dressed in full [riot clothing]." Sir David said the conditions were so austere that they "equate with punishment" rather than "purposes of good order" and, according to prison rules, should last no longer than 14 days.

Inmates held on D wing, who have included the serial hostage-taker Charles Bronson, armed robbers Rifat Mehmet and Sean O'Connor, and murderer Warren Slaney, are kept there for an average eight months and in some cases for 18 months. Sir David said: "D wing prisoners were chronically socially isolated and under-stimulated. There was little education, no work, no hobbies, no gym, no radio, no shared worship and no association with either prisoners or staff."

Inmates, who sleep on a mattress on a concrete plinth and have cardboard furniture, are not allowed to put pictures on their cell walls and may make just two social telephone calls a week. The chief inspector said that staff regarded the prisoners as "social isolates rather than as people with families like themselves who could be damaged by dehumanising regimes".

Sir David called for the Prison Service to introduce a "more progressive system" at Woodhill and its sister CSC unit at Durham jail, which would give prisoners more freedom and allow for more treatment of their mental-health problems. He called for staff at the units - nicknamed Alcatraz within the jail system because of the high levels of security - to be given improved psychiatric and psychological training.

But he acknowledged that prisoners who "attack staff, take hostages, attack and murder other prisoners" needed to be kept in "tightly constrained units". He said the problem of coping with very dangerous inmates had not been solved "by any prison system in the world" and that with the right reforms the CSCs could become a model for other countries seeking to address the issue.

The director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, promised to take Sir David's recommendations on board. He pointed out that only around 40 prisoners were held in the CSCs, compared with 18,000 inmates facing similar conditions in the United States. He "desperately wished" that he did not have to use the austerity of D wing but said the conditions were not unlawful. He admitted Alcatraz was not working for a "small number" of dangerous prisoners and that alternative accommodation was being sought for them.

Before the CSC units were opened in April 1998, the most dangerous and disruptive prisoners were moved between the segregation units of high-security prisons for 28-day periods. Mr Narey said that since the CSCs had opened, the high-security prisons had been noticeably more peaceful. Of 56 prisoners in the CSC system four had returned, through an earned privileges scheme, to normal conditions at other prisons, he said.