Harry Brett, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, warned that if Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, forced through tough new regimes, managers and governors would 'once again be under the thumb of civil service mandarins'. He said: 'This totally upsets everything that is supposed to be happening in jails.'
In April, the prison service gained agency status, enabling it to operate at arm's length from Whitehall. Kenneth Clarke, Mr Howard's predecessor, brought in Derek Lewis, former chief executive of Granada, to run it.
Mr Lewis promised to create 'a mixed economy of public-sector and private-sector prisons' that would 'restore standards of excellence.'
Mr Brett said: 'The whole idea - taken together with the Woolf report into the Strangeways riots - was to devolve responsibility down to establishment level; to enable, not to dictate.
'Now it seems the Government wants to tell officials how they should run their prisons.
'Those who were initially sceptical that agency status would bring benefits could at least say that managers and governors would have more power to decide how to run establishments.
'This, they thought, would enable them to escape the hurly-burly of party politics with the Tories and Labour shaping their policies to satisfy public outcries or short-term political expediency. Now, in the run-up to party conferences, we see that old habits die hard. The old law-and-order rhetoric is back.'
Mr Howard, he said, was out of touch with developments. He contrasted 'new generation' jails such as the pounds 120m Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, with 'traditional' local prisons such as Wandsworth, south London.
'Where has the Home Secretary been for the last 15 years when prisons like Woodhill were planned and built? Is he really saying that the excellent facilities at Woodhill, sports fields and musical instruments, should not be used? It does not make sense.'
Adam Sampson of the Prison Reform Trust, added: 'The Woolf inquiry, the most authoritative study of prison conditions, lasted nine months. Mr Howard has been in office less than half that time, yet he is already prepared to overturn its recommendations.'
A DAY IN BRITAIN'S JAILS
WOODHILL PRISON, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Opened 1992. 'Campus' prison with open-plan blocks; lavatories and wash basins in cells; prisoners often unaccompanied by staff; non-smoking. Britain's most expensive prison - pounds 120m.
7.30am - unlock, wash, breakfast;
9.30am-12 noon - work in association with local industries, education from remedial literacy classes to music, computer skills and driving lessons;
12.30pm - lock-up;
1.15pm - unlock, lunch;
2pm - work, education, sports (gym, soccer), driving tests;
5.30pm - tea;
6pm - entertainment (television, video films), sports, education;
9.30pm - lock-up for the night.
WANDSWORTH, BIRMINGHAM, LEEDS, CARDIFF PRISONS - Victorian, radial design, galleried wings.
8am - unlock, slop-out, wash, lock-up;
8.45am - unlock, breakfast in cells, lock-up;
9.30am - work for the one in two inmates who have 'jobs'. Remaining inmates locked up or exercising for up to one hour;
11.30am - lock-up for workers;
11.45am - unlock, lunch in cells, lock-up;
1.30pm - unlock, slop out, lock- up;
2pm - unlock for workers;
4pm - lock-up for workers;
4.15pm - unlock, tea in cells, lock-up;
6.30pm - unlock, occasional entertainment and education;
8.30pm - lock-up for the night.