Prison inquiry call as 'sadistic' officers are jailed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Three prison officers who attacked an inmate for "bizarre and sadistic entertainment" were jailed yesterday for their part in the worst case of staff brutality in modern British penal history.

A judge told the three officers from the segregation unit at Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London that their behaviour would "outrage all right-thinking people in a civilised society".

Senior officer John Nichol, 39, Darren Fryer, 33, and Robert Lawrie, 37, cornered a prisoner, Steven Banks, in a cell, struck him repeatedly and told him he would die. Nichol from Chinnor, Oxfordshire, and Lawrie of Greenford, west London, were each jailed for four years. Fryer, from Barnet, north London, was sentenced to three and a half years.

They were among a total of 27 officers at Wormwood Scrubs who were accused at 10 separate trials of assaulting inmates. Six officers were jailed and the rest acquitted.

The extent of the violence at the jail prompted two former chief inspectors of prisons to call yesterday for a full independent inquiry. Sir Stephen Tumin, a retired judge, and Sir David Ramsbotham, a former army general, are backing a dossier of evidence being studied by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, detailing more than 50 incidents of alleged brutality at the jail.

The Independent has learnt that police, working on Operation Mevagissy II, are investigating a further 40 allegations of assault at Wormwood Scrubs in a fresh inquiry that is likely to finish next month.

The Prison Service has also reached out-of-court settlements in six cases of alleged brutality and has brought disciplinary charges against two more officers who were acquitted at criminal trial.

A further seven civil cases have been lodged in the courts by alleged victims and 49 are pending. Another 37 people have made allegations of assault but have insufficient evidence to support court actions.

The General Medical Council is studying a further file that calls for six people who worked at Wormwood Scrubs in a medical capacity to be struck off the medical register for their alleged failure to treat patients or to act over the violence.

The London law firm Hickman and Rose, which provided the Home Secretary with the dossier, said: "The true dimension of these events is simply beyond belief. This is still little more than a representative sample from a pool of victims numbering well over a hundred."

Sentencing the three officers at Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Charles Byers told them: "You are guilty not only of an appalling assault but also of the grossest breach of that authority, responsibility and trust."

The court was told that Banks was placed in a headlock in 1998 and taunted with threats such as "Do you know how easy it is to break a neck?" and "There is going to be another death in custody." The judge said: "He was punched and kicked repeatedly and the attack concluded with him being held by the arms and then propelled into a wall with such force that he received an extensive wound to his forehead."

He told the officers: "I can only conclude that this episode was done for your own bizarre and sadistic entertainment ... You have let down yourselves, you have let down the Prison Service and you have let down your colleagues, the majority of whom conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion. Such behaviour is bound to outrage all right-thinking people in a civilised society."

Addressing each officer in turn, the judge added: "You, Nichol, were a senior officer. You could have put a stop to what was going on. You chose not to. Instead, you joined in. I take the view that if you behave like a vicious thug you will be punished like a vicious thug. You, Lawrie, were a ring leader, and you, Fryer, although not a ring leader were still in the thick of it."

The scandal of Wormwood Scrubs has made a cruel mockery of Britain's great penal reformers Elizabeth Fry and John Howard whose busts adorn the facade of what was once the country's flagship jail.

Tony Hassall, a former junior governor who tried unsuccessfully to act as a whistleblower, said in a statement: "There was almost a gang culture and a vigilante culture within the prison ... there was a constant use of force to resolve issues."

The hub of the brutality at Wormwood Scrubs was the segregation unit ­ "the Block" ­ where prisoners were taken if they were deemed to have misbehaved. It was here that a group of prison officers known as "the Welcoming Committee" chose to hand out unauthorised punishments.

A trusted prisoner who was employed as the cleaner of the segregation unit told The Independent that officers in the block were "a law unto themselves". The cleaner, who was later to give three days of interviews to police, said: "The whole regime was that the segregation unit was independent. It was not part of the prison. You were cut off from everything and everybody. Even the chaplain they would not allow in. Almost every prisoner that came in was targeted. It was like a routine, just to keep the prisoners in order. They would take them in there and slap them about."

Warnings of violence at the jail went to the top of the Prison Service and were repeatedly ignored. Sir Stephen spoke of "terrifying noises" coming from the segregation block in a 1994 report and repeated warnings came from Sir David and the jail's board of visitors.

Sir David inspected the jail a number of times and reported after a visit in 1998 that he had found an "evil and rotten regime", with a "pool of depression" hanging over it.

He criticised a former head of the Prison Service, Richard Tilt, for failing to take action against the violence. He said: "Even if Richard didn't know ­ which he should have done ­ then Richard did nothing after our September 1996 report and it was Richard who left Wormwood Scrubs without a governor for nine months."

Sir David described as "absolutely idiotic" a recent decision to return seven officers acquitted in court to work at the prison. "The last thing I would do is put back anyone who has been accused," he said.

The call for a public inquiry was also backed by a former Wormwood Scrubs governor, Linda Wallace, and a former Roman Catholic chaplain at the jail, Terri Coyle.

Comments