'Remarkable' improvement at Brixton jail: Inspector applauds transformation at once-squalid remand prison

ONCE notorious for its record of suicides, its squalid, inhumane conditions and the embarrassing escape of two IRA suspects, Brixton prison in south London has been rehabilitated.

Judge Stephen Tumim, the chief inspector of prisons who two and a half years ago condemned the jail as 'corrupting and depressing', yesterday reported on its 'remarkable transformation'.

His recognition of the changes the new governor, Dr Andrew Coyle, had managed to achieve in the country's oldest Victorian jail were echoed by the prisoners. One said: 'The difference in this nick from two years ago is that staff now show us some respect.'

The prison service acknowledged that for 100 years prisoners 'paid a terrible price' as Brixton jail concentrated on fulfilling its role as the London remand prison - ensuring that prisoners were at court on time.

At its worst, 1,150 prisoners were crammed into accommodation that should have held 730 - sometimes three were confined in one cell for up to 23 hours a day.

Perhaps its biggest shame was F wing - labelled by professionals a latter-day Bedlam, and by prisoners as Fraggle Rock after a children's television puppet programme. In an atmosphere of urine, faeces and stale food, up to 300 psychiatric cases were held, from the psychotic, the mentally ill and the suicidal, to those withdrawing from drugs and the depressed.

Now F wing is closed, and 100 mentally ill and disordered prisoners are housed in a better-staffed 'healthcare centre'. Violent outbursts, once an everyday occurrence, now happen less than once a week. There has been no suicide since May 1991 - there were 14 in the previous two years - largely due, the report said, to 'very active' suicide prevention measures and the immediate transfer of those considered at risk into the hospital rather than isolation cells.

'The transformation in the last 18 months has already been remarkable. For example, the contrast between the squalid, overcrowded and desperate conditions in F wing in 1990 and the warm, light, open and positive atmosphere which now prevails is a credit to all concerned,' the report said.

Although the report attributed some improvements - prisoners are out of their cells for six hours a day - to the drop in population to 680, much was due to the quality of staff. 'We found a very positive optimistic and professional attitude amongst staff which translated into a very good rapport with inmates,' it said.

Judge Tumim's Brixton report was one of 11 on prisons and young offender institutions around the country published this week. Not all were as favourable. Lack of coherent planning is blamed for Whitemoor prison, a new jail in Cambridgeshire, holding a large population of vulnerable prisoners alongside high-risk, long-term inmates, with one shared set of facilities.

Management of life-sentence inmates at Albany prison on the Isle of Wight was among the poorest in the jail system, Judge Tumim concluded.

At Highpoint prison, Newmarket, where drugs and violence have already been identified as a problem, Judge Tumim recorded 24 assaults on inmates, eight on staff, and 46 drug finds; 18 prisoners had escaped and one in nine of those allowed temporary release had failed to return.

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