He has vetoed plans to allow prisoners to have television in their cells and promised to toughen up on home leave after a series of cases in which inmates committed crimes while they were on temporary release.
A full-scale review has been set up into whether to release prisoners for short home-leave breaks as they approach the end of their sentences. Last week a prisoner on home leave, Malcolm Smith, was convicted of murdering Jayne Harvell, 26, in her flat in Bournemouth, Dorset. He had 123 previous convictions.
As a stop-gap, all prison governors were told last week that 'in the light of public concern' they must always 'exercise caution in favour of the public' and 'refuse any application (for home leave) where there was any doubt about the prisoner's likely behaviour'.
Prisons were told to obtain reports from police, social services and probation officers before letting inmates out. Good behaviour in jail was not enough to justify home leave.
The ban on televisions breaks a government commitment given after Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways riot recommended perks for well behaved prisoners. A Home Office White Paper in response to the judge's report pointed out that continental prisons had television. British inmates were already allowed to have radios and record players, it said, and 'no significant point of principle' would be broken if they were given televisions too. Mr Howard has intervened even though officials have yet to evaluate a pilot project in which sets were introduced to cells in three prisons.
'Mr Howard is frightened of tabloid headlines about prisons being holiday camps and prisoners being mollycoddled,' said one senior official.
A fierce battle is now going on inside the Home Office to persuade the Home Secretary to change his mind. Derek Lewis, head of the quasi-independent Prisons Agency, is said to be arguing that Mr Howard is interfering in an operational decision.
Adam Sampson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, a pressure group, said television not only reduced the risk of riot by keeping inmates quiet, but could also be used for educational purposes. The Government was trying to appear tough because it was under attack on law and order from the Opposition. 'This is part of a politically motivated backlash which has nothing to do with what's best for the prison system,' he said.
Cheese & porridge, Sunday Review