Prisons seek 'barbaric belt'

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AS THE controversy continues over the use by police of a body- belt in the Joy Gardner case, the Prison Service is seeking manufacturers to replenish its own stock of the device.

Despite the strong protests of prison reform groups, which say the use of such devices is 'barbaric and medieval', prisons have long sanctioned the use of the body-belts and other leather straps to restrain difficult and violent prisoners, although they are subject to strict guidelines.

Every one of the more than 130 prisons in England and Wales has at least one body-belt, which is made of leather reinforced with a metal strip and with attached handcuffs; leather for female prisoners and metal ones for males. The belt used by the Metropolitan Police to restrain Mrs Gardner had the handcuffs on longer chains; the Prison Service denies it was obtained from it.

Until five years ago, the belts were made in prison workshops. A spokesman for the Prison Service said: 'Since production ceased, prisons have made do with existing body-belts but now stocks are diminishing and we shall shortly be seeking to purchase new belts. There is no question of ending the use of the belt.'

The service may have to seek manufacturers in the United States or Third World countries, where such devices are routinely used. British companies in the handcuff industry have been banned since the mid-1980s from exporting leg irons and shackles and it is possible that body-belts fall into the same category.

Adam Sampson of the Prison Reform Trust said yesterday: 'The Prison Service has spent millions of pounds training officers in control and restraint techniques. There is no case for retaining what are essentially relics of a medieval prison system. And to pursue this policy when the use of body-belts is under scrutiny in the Gardner case seems to be the height of stupidity.'

No figures are available for the use of body-belts, but in the 12 months ending last June, all types of prison physical restraints - belts, straps, handcuffs and a type of straitjacket - were used on 194 occasions. Five prisons, Brixton, Pentonville, Feltham, Wormwood Scrubs and Full Sutton, were responsible for more than half the total figure.

(Photograph omitted)