Sex offenders transferred to 'unsafe' jail: Measures by Prison Service to reduce overcrowding face legal challenge

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TACTICS employed by the Prison Service to deal with jail overcrowding may be challenged in the courts.

To ease pressure on packed prisons in the North of England, inmates have been sent hundreds of miles away to empty cells in the South - making family visits impossible for some. Last week, as numbers passed 47,200 - well over the system's certified capacity - prisoners at one jail slept on mattresses on the floor in other inmates' cells.

But what is of greatest concern to penal reformers and many prison staff is that 'vulnerable' prisoners - sex offenders who are attacked and abused by other inmates - are being taken off treatment programmes designed to prevent reoffending and sent to riot-torn Wymott prison in Lancashire.

Both Lord Woolf, the Law Lord, and Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, have warned that overcrowding undermines recent improvements and treatment programmes.

The Prison Reform Trust is now consulting lawyers to see if the moves can be stopped, because Wymott - parts of which are still devastated by disturbances in September - remains unsafe, according to Judge Tumim.

In his report into the riots, the judge said the jail was close to anarchy, and added that one of the most disturbing aspects was that warnings of trouble had gone unheeded by the Prison Service.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said yesterday: 'Nobody in a position of responsibility has been made to carry the can for these riots. Yet prisoners who are wholly innocent of any involvement in the disturbances are the ones who are being punished by having their treatment programmes disrupted and by being sent to Wymott, which has been wrecked and which has few decent facilities.'

The trust has written to Derek Lewis, director general of the Prison Service, threatening legal action and asking that until Wymott is made safe, the transfer of vulnerable prisoners should stop.

Inmates at Risley, in Cheshire, who are being moved to Wymott, had told the trust they were being targeted because they were 'low risk and low profile.'

One wrote: 'Our wish is to address our behaviour, attend the programmes and use the variety of rehabilitation facilities to return as normal citizens in the confidence of not reoffending. Transfer to Wymott takes everything away from us - and all the good work of the Risley staff - forcing us to start again with nothing.'

Brendan O'Friel, governor of Risley and chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, has voiced his concerns that such programmes were being disrupted.

But Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has not flinched from his stance on law and order which will send many more people to prison - despite warnings from senior judges, lawyers, and prison governors that overcrowding will lead to more jail riots and will do nothing to deter offending.

Yesterday, Mr Lewis denied the suggestion that inmates were being sent to 'unsafe' accommodation or that it was substandard. 'It was always planned that Wymott should hold vulnerable prisoners,' he said. Treatment programmes would soon be introduced. 'They will not be suffering any significant disruption of their programme.'