Jails chief accused over raid on 'model prison'

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The head of the Prison Service was accused by a House of Commons committee yesterday of misleading Parliament over a "heavy-handed and unjustified" raid on a model prison.

The head of the Prison Service was accused by a House of Commons committee yesterday of misleading Parliament over a "heavy-handed and unjustified" raid on a model prison.

The powerful Commons Home Affairs Select Committee published a damning report in which it described the raid by prison officers on Blantyre House jail in Kent as a "failure" which "produced no significant finds". Delivering the committee's findings at press conference, Robin Corbett, the Labour chairman of the panel, said the "heavy-handed" raid was "more Keystone Cops than the late Inspector Morse".

The committee accused the Prison Service director general, Martin Narey, of giving MPs "misleading" evidence that a "quite frightening amount of contraband material" was found during the raid last May.

After the raid, Parliament was told that 98 unauthorised items, including cash, credit cards, cameras and escape equipment were found in the jail. It later transpired that prisoners were entitled to credit cards and building tools as part of their work placements outside the jail. The cameras belonged to the jail photography club and most of the cash belonged to the prison chaplain.

In its report, the committee said: "We are dissatisfied at the attempts made to mislead the committee and public over the significance of what was found." The MPs were also angry that the Prison Service tried to claim that its decision to move Blantyre House's liberal governor, Eoin McLennan-Murray, on the day of the raid was a "planned career move". Gerald Howarth, a committee member, said his treatment had been "shameful".

Blantyre House was raided on the night of 5 May by 84 prison officers from other jails. An internal Prison Service investigation team, known as the Chaucer Group, had claimed to have found evidence of security breaches and criminal activity at the prison, a resettlement institution which prepares inmates for release. But the Commons committee said it was "completely unconvinced" that the scale of the search was "proportionate" to the intelligence received, and it ordered an "immediate review" of the Chaucer Group.

The committee said Blantyre House had a "reputation for excellence". It pointed out that the Prisons minister, Paul Boateng, had described it as "a model for others". Only 8 per cent of Blantyre House prisoners have been found to reoffend within two years of release, compared to 57 per cent at other jails.

The MPs said they were unhappy that the office of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, had given the committee an assurance, only days before the raid, that the Home Office was committed to the ethos of Blantyre House. They said: "We find it difficult to believe that the Home Secretary's office was unaware of the impending action by the Prison Service."

The committee was especially critical of the man who oversaw the Chaucer Group, Tom Murtagh, the hardline Prison Service area manager for Kent, Surrey and Sussex, who had a "different attitude" to the Blantyre House governor. It said: "Even if Tom Murtagh was fully committed to resettlement as practised at Blantyre House - which frankly we find difficult to believe - he failed to convey that impression to some of those who worked near him. In fact, he gave very much the opposite impression to others and to us. The committee said the Prison Service should review its policy on resettlement and report back.

The Prison Governors' Association described the committee's findings as "the most important report covering the work of the Prison Service that we have seen for a decade". David Roddan, general secretary, said: "The job of governors is to manage risk in order to ultimately reduce risk to the public. Mr McLennan-Murray did this. What happened was a dreadful mistake."