Straw clamps down on prison comedy classes

Justice Secretary accused of 'gross overreaction' against arts courses in jails after press reports spark stand-up row

Jack Straw has ordered a clampdown on activities designed to rehabilitate criminals, after he was embarrassed by revelations that some prisoners at high-security Whitemoor prison have been getting lessons in stand-up comedy .

Critics claim the move by the Secretary of State for Justice is "lunacy" and a "gross overreaction", threatening hundreds of rehabilitation programmes.

Now, the Prisons Service has warned governors to ensure all activities are "acceptable, purposeful and meet the public acceptability test". In a leaked memo, seen by The Independent on Sunday, governors have been told they must consider how activities "might be perceived by the public and victims" and avoid "indefensible criticism" that undermine public confidence in the Prison Service.

But experts say the clampdown has led to a curb on scores of programmes which use the theatre and the arts to rehabilitate prisoners.

In an outspoken attack, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, described the move as "lunacy". "The Justice Secretary threw all the arts organisations out of Whitemoor prison and eventually produced this extraordinary order saying that only activities that would be approved of by the public would be allowed.

"Who's going to be the judge? It was a gross overreaction. What the voluntary sector does in prisons is work to help people rehabilitate. If you say you really are trying to protect the public, you'll damage that, if you don't allow rehabilitation."

The Comedy School – which has used stand-up classes to improve prisoners' social and literacy skills – was an immediate victim of the clampdown. It was pulled out of Whitemoor prison following tabloid newspaper outrage.

Comedy School director Keith Palmer said: "We were told the project needed to stop immediately because of a request from Jack Straw. I wouldn't mind if it was a new idea, but we've been doing this programme for 10 years now. I'm trying to understand what other areas of criminal justice The Sun gets to decide."

Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust said: "Draconian cuts and fear of tabloid headlines will reduce prisons to human warehouses and staff to mere turnkeys. Shocking self-harm and reconviction rates ought to be the public acceptability tests that keep the justice secretary awake at night."

Fine Cell Work, a charity which teaches sewing to prisoners and sells their work, fears the new approach might see their projects barred.

Executive director Katie Emck said: "Prison disorder is caused by inactivity and prisoners desperately need things to do. As for value for money, there are hundreds of charities, working in prisons for free, that are now under threat."

David Hanson, the Justice minister, said yesterday: "The types of courses and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate. What happens inside the prison gates has ramifications outside, on victims and their families, and on taxpayers."

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