Two former prison governors are facing disciplinary action after it emerged that vulnerable inmates were moved between jails "like chess pieces" in an attempt to give a false impression of conditions during official inspections.
Managers at Wandsworth and Pentonville Prisons in London devised a plan to transfer "difficult" inmates before the inspectors arrived and so "subvert" the work of Dame Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and her staff.
As a result of being moved, one Wandsworth inmate took an overdose of prescription drugs and needed hospital treatment, while another cut himself and tied a ligature around his neck.
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, yesterday condemned the governors' actions as "disgraceful". He said: "In its misguided effort to present the prisons in a better light, it neglected one of the service's primary responsibilities – to treat those in its custody with decency and care. It was also self-defeating, as prisoners are fully entitled to complain to the Inspectorate, which is exactly what happened in this case."
Mr Straw said that the director general of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was taking disciplinary action against five members of staff involved in the subterfuge. He also suggested that similar subterfuges may have taken place in other prisons.
"There are bound to be questions as to whether these practices have occurred in other prisons. The director general of NOMS has already referred to investigations at Brixton prison. Meanwhile, I have asked the director of Analytical Services at the Ministry of Justice to supervise an investigation into the logs of transfers between local prisons. This data should give a clear indication of any short-term transfers out and back to prisons around the time of inspections," he said.
A third inmate at Wandsworth prison, Christopher Wardally, who was taken to Pentonville after a court appearance and returned in a van with the other transferred prisoners, killed himself a week after the inspection concluded. His death is being investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and HM Coroner.
Although he is not thought to have been part of the organised transfers, an urgent inquiry by NOMS found the inspections "may" have led to delays in returning him to his cell.
Dame Anne said the actions of those responsible for the swaps were "deplorable" and accused them of a "dereliction of their duty of care". Wandsworth prison had been warned about the dangers of transferring prisoners following another prisoner suicide, she added.
"Every prison in the country knows that prisoners are particularly vulnerable to suicide in the days immediately after they move to a new prison."
Dame Anne's report includes a graphic description of how the two highly distressed Wandsworth inmates, despite self-harming, were nonetheless forcibly moved across London. After cutting himself and tying a ligature around his neck, one inmate was dragged from his cell and taken to the prison reception "bloody, handcuffed and dressed only in underwear", Dame Anne said. He tried to hurt himself three more times after arriving at Pentonville.
The other man was taken by taxi to Pentonville after he was given treatment in hospital. Mr Wardally, 25, was regarded as a suicide risk but hanged himself on 12 June this year.
In total, five prisoners were moved from Wandsworth and six from Pentonville during inspections in May and June this year. Inspectors went back in after being tipped off about the transfers.