The truth? Prisoners are taking control

ASK CHRISTINE Ellis how she views her role as governor of Cookham Wood prison in Rochester and she makes a twisted smile which says: 'Am I supposed to tell you the truth or do you want the official version?'

She is thinking of the memorandum leaked last week from Michael Howard, Home Secretary, outlining the need for a 'more austere regime' and of a new report by Judge Stephen Tumim, Chief Inspector of Prisons, in which he wrote of the 'corrupting apathy' at Wolds prison, Humberside.

'Officially my role is to manage a complex organisation cost effectively . . . to reform and to punish . . . but this may change,' says Mrs Ellis. Unofficially her job description includes 'covering the backs of the politicians' and implementing 'sticky plaster solutions to gaping wounds in the system'. Most of her days and certainly her nights are passed lurching from crisis to crisis.

Mrs Ellis sympathises with Mr Howard's need to win back public confidence in law and order, but says his preoccupation with 'lax regimes' is bythe by. The real issue is who should have control. Prison staff are grappling to keep the reins, but bit by bit their grip is slipping.

'Prisoners are learning how to hit where it hurts. This evening we have had one woman abscond from temporary release and one woman threaten to smash her cell up and then kill herself. Both know we are short of staff - we have four staff looking after 120 prisoners at the moment. And both have timed their 'protests' perfectly to cripple us when we are at our most vulnerable.

'I can't threaten either of the women with a punishment which will hurt. The most I can punish the runaway is to give her an extra 28 days on top of her sentence. She knows she can 'earn it back' with good behaviour. She has already decided that the punishment is worth accepting for a few days on the run. She is cocking a snook at us. We are near crisis point.'

Several of Mrs Ellis's colleagues have made similar comments. Lynne Bowles, 39, number three governor at the maximum security Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire, has been so outspoken in the last few weeks that she has been advised by her colleagues to keep a low profile.

Miss Bowles says she decided to speak when she realised she and her colleagues were becoming demoralised, burnt- out. Ringleaders, she said, were organising mass disobedience over trivial issues such as the price of chicken in the prison shop. 'If you go there and say, 'You listen to me, mister, you get back in there behind the door', this person can threaten you later.'

Mrs Ellis says threats are common because there is no official charge for intimidation of staff. 'I have had men, who I know have murdered before, bend their faces close to mine and say: 'If you don't allow me to do this I am going to kill you'.'

One answer, Mrs Ellis says, would be a prison where there are 'no goodies', where prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day with nothing but a Bible. 'There should be no telephone, no smoking, no contact with other prisoners, no visits, no books, no private cash. The prisoner would stay in such a prison until willing to play ball. They will relearn that privileges have to be earned.'

Mrs Ellis says she does not want to blame the Woolf report. But what she calls 'humane prison reformers' have taken it all too far.

Lord Justice Woolf's report came after the 1990 Strangeways riot. It contained 204 recommendations for improving the prison regime. Jails should look beyond requirements of punishment and order, he said. They should be a place where prisoners are treated with dignity and respect in preparation for release. Six months after the report, a White Paper endorsed its philosophy that prison regimes must be balanced between security and justice.

For the past two years, everybody has worked to implement the recommendations. But Derek Lewis, director-general of the prison service, is advocating a reversal of that policy and Mr Howard wants a 'departure' from it, claiming to be responding to public demand for tougher regimes.

Prison staff support a clampdown. But their motive is different: they feel they have been slapped in the face by ungrateful prisoners. Mrs Ellis says: 'Since the Woolf report we have tried to promote a fairer and more open exchange between prisoners and officers. We have allowed ourselves to be challenged and some of the prisoners' complaints have been upheld. There is less regard for authority.'

At present the maximum punishment for an offence is three days in solitary confinement with loss of privileges, a small fine and an extra 28 days on their sentence. 'This is not enough. A greater range of punitive measures is needed to maintain control,' she says.

Mrs Ellis has not always favoured a harsh line. In the Eighties, as assistant general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, she worked hard to raise minimum standards for prisoners. She still believes in giving them the right to make decisions and have some control over their lives within a tight regime.

Work is one way of tightening up the system. The only difficulty is capital investment. Mrs Ellis is trying to increase the number of hours worked at Cookham Wood from five- and-a-half to seven. 'I like the prisoners to work - not to be harsh on them but to give them dignity, to give them a sense of responsibility.'

But she has a warning for Mr Howard: 'I don't know what he means when he says he wants the regime to be more 'austere', but he should think carefully before he acts. Nothing can be achieved by making the prison regime any grimmer than it already is. If relations between governors and prisoner are bad there is tension and that is a security risk. I believe in control through co- operation.'

Mr Howard said yesterday that a number of jail regimes were 'too lax' but he remained committed to the Woolf recommendations. These included finding active and demanding activities for prisoners. 'That is something we will have to do rather better than we have been,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)