Judge describes Wymott as a jail close to anarchy

STEPHEN TUMIM yesterday painted a picture of Wymott as a jail out of control, where drug gangs dominated, inmates patrolled their own wings, officers were regarded as 'intruders' and where bullying and violent assault were commonplace, writes Heather Mills.

Although prison officers, police and fire services were praised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons for bringing the prison back under control with no escapes and no serious injuries, the jail was a 'disturbance waiting to happen'.

There were so many 'horror stories' from staff and inmates of prisoners fabricating spearlike weapons out of fluorescent lighting strips, of gangs waylaying prisoners on their way back from visits and forcibly stripping them in order to steal their possessions; of drug deals being arranged in front of staff; and of inmates tying others to chairs and hosing them.

'If only a proportion of them are true . . . then Wymott was a prison very close to anarchy,' he said in his report yesterday.

The most worrying factor was that the problems were well known and well documented, but little seemed to have been done to avoid the disturbances. In March 1992, Judge Tumim had warned of the dangers of an influx of 'more volatile and confrontational' prisoners. He condemned the prevalence of bullying and drug abuse and alerted the Home Office to the potential hazards of the jail's low-key internal security.

When the jail erupted into violence last September, it was for the third time in seven years. In April 1986, 58 prisoners were injured and the prison itself damaged by fire, vandalism and flooding. Six months later violence flared again, this time leaving several officers injured.

Reports at the time said the jail's open design was unsuited to the number of young, volatile violent prisoners it was housing. By the time of this year's riots, there were even more such inmates.

'Many of these came from areas dominated by drug gangs and had not known employment in the accepted sense. Alienated from many of society's conventional standards, they were difficult for staff to understand and deal with.'

Judge Tumim found that assaults escalated - 87 prisoners taken to hospital in the year leading up to the disturbances - large numbers of prisoners and staff were reporting sick, and inmates had suffered drug overdoses.

The weekend before the riots, violence broke out, apparently over the non-delivery of a large quantity of heroin.

One prisoner told the inspectors: ' I have never experienced a more frightening or barbaric place. The whole prison was a battleground. Everyone knew about the drug problems. But no one, staff, probation officers and the inmates themselves, seemed to care about what was going on.'

Judge Tumim concluded that to give Wymott a settled future, the existing buildings needed replacing or strengthening, with inmates locked in their cells each night, instead of holding their own keys.

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