Whose fault then?: Violence, drugs, Semtex: there's a gap between prison reality and Mr Howard's tough rhetoric. Nick Cohen and Peter Victor report

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The Independent Online
OF COURSE the Home Secretary should not resign, Sir Ivan Lawrence, Conservative chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said on Friday. The discovery that IRA men were receiving guns, detonators and explosives in Whitemoor Prison as well as steak, chips and groceries from local supermarkets, was 'embarrassing', but 'Michael Howard cannot be expected to walk round every perimeter wall looking for Semtex'.

Mr Howard agreed wholeheartedly. 'I have a job to do and I'm determined to see it through,' he said later in the day, angrily brushing aside further questions about his future from reporters. Baroness Denton, a Northern Ireland minister, had explained the Government's line on ministerial accountability on BBC Television's Question Time the night before. Ministers were personally reponsible for policy mistakes in their departments, she said, not for the failures in the implementation of their policies by their departments.

This was not the approach adopted by ministers responsible for the poll tax, but even some critics of the Government concede it is not unreasonable in principle, and not without precedent. When the Soviet spy George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, Roy Jenkins, the then Labour Home Secretary, did not resign. Kenneth Baker stayed in office when the IRA suspects Nessan Quinlivan and Pearse McAuley broke out from Brixton jail in 1991 - even though the police, prison governor and Home Office were warned in advance about the escape. If Home Secretaries were held responsible for the rise in crime, every minister since the mid-Fifties would have walked, since none has reduced the crime rate.

But outside Westminster, in the criminal justice system Mr Howard leads, the calls for his resignation were not treated as preposterous.

Mr Howard's hardline rhetoric, and his two central themes of privatising prisons and allowing more and more people to go to jail - his policies - were linked with the security crisis in Whitemoor. Privatisation had led to prison officers worrying about their jobs rather than their duties, opponents said, and the rise in jail numbers had caused the Prison Service officials responsible for security to take their eyes off the ball. The criticisms are strongly phrased because dislike for the Home Secretary is intense.

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for Napo, the probation officers' union, said: 'What's the point of him? He's a deceitful man whose public pronouncements have little to do with the world of crime, probation and prison. We were just getting on top of the crisis in the jails until he came along. He should give us all a break and go away.'

John Bartell, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said the Home Secretary must be held to account for the 'horrendous' level of violence, drug abuse and security breaches in jails. 'If you worked in one of Britain's prisons today and you had to face the unchecked criminality, the daily violence and the daily break-downs in control, I think you would share our sentiments.'

Senior civil servants, who normally have little time for the views of prison officers, agree. One policy adviser who has just retired after 33 years at the top of the Home Office gave a devastating assessment of the Home Secretary. 'He's very bad, the worst I've seen,' said the former official, who did not want to be named. 'He's imposing a political agenda on the service without any attempt at consultation. There's a contempt for the people who work in criminal justice, for rational argument and impartial research. We've now seen two successive chairmen of the Magistrates' Association criticise the Government in public - that would have been unthinkable, even in the Eighties. I think trouble is inevitable.'

THE HOME Office now has its most right-wing team of ministers in living memory. Mr Howard, often identified as one of John Major's Cabinet 'bastards', is served by David Maclean, who once wrote that his job was to 'drive the vermin off our streets' and Michael Forsyth, the ideological leader of Scotland's small band of Thatcherites.

Their language has become tougher and tougher since the Conservative Party conference of last year - a deliberate attempt, allege Labour's home affairs spokesmen, to rebuild the Conservative Party's fortunes by playing the law and order card.

A speech to jail managers in November last year is typical of the new forthright approach. 'Prison is not intended to be pleasant,' Mr Howard said. It should be 'decent, but austere'. There should be 'hard work and discipline', and prisoners should have privileges given and taken away in accordance with good or bad behaviour.

He went on: 'People find it very hard to understand why someone who has committed a serious enough crime to justify a custodial sentence should enjoy access to leisure, which they, who have worked hard all their lives, cannot afford. This is not a situation we can tolerate.'

But his critics say such language bears no relation to what is really happening in the prisons. On the one hand there is rampant violence and indiscipline; on the other, in jails such as Whitemoor there are privileges for some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country, which 'ordinary people' find hard to understand.

This gap between rhetoric and reality is vividly exposed in documents leaked last week from the Prison Service Intelligence and Incident Support Unit. They show that between 1 April 1993, just before MrHoward took over the Home Office, and 31 August 1994, the Prison Service has seen:

the escape of 429 inmates;

2,599 major incidents of violence and protest and 23,715 minor incidents in prisons;

249 assaults on staff and 486 attacks on inmates by violent prisoners;

the emergence of a drug-smuggling and drug-taking culture which has led to 7,433 separate discoveries of heroin, cocaine, crack, LSD, barbituarates and drug-taking equipment in jails.

In Whitemoor, violence and privileges were combined. What was meant to be a model prison for terrorists, sex offenders and serious criminals experienced a riot in December 1993 and, according to prison officers, a policy was adopted of 'appeasing' the lifers in the Cambridgeshire jail's special secure unit.

The prison's board of visitors and Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, have both criticised the cosy relationship between prisoners and staff and warned of the danger of the jail getting out of control.

Yesterday prison officers in the jail provided documentary evidence which showed in detail how a basic security procedure had been ignored and how some of the most serious criminals in Britain had been allowed to order food and clothes from two officers who made weekly shopping trips to Peterborough.

Staff concerns were raised formally on 13 May 1992. Ray King, spokesman for the Whitemoor Prison Officers' Association, and Roy Greenacre, the union secretary, met Andrew Barclay, the then governor, and Patrick Kelly, the head of custody.

Mr King and Mr Greenacre asked why they had been told they should not search visitors to the Special Secure Unit, where the IRA prisoners were held. The minutes read: 'Mr Barclay stated that information was still awaited from HQ regarding the searching of inmates' visitors.'

When the information came, it was vague. A directive from the Home Office prisons department's directorate of custody, known as DOC1, said simply that there was no formal policy on searches. After this some visitors were searched, but only on an ad hoc basis.

Judge Tumim has said, in a report on the jail which has not yet been published, that other basic precautions were ignored. For example, warders in the special unit were not rotated every six months to prevent them getting too friendly with inmates, but were left there for three years.

At one stage the local POA branch made a sustained effort to change the lax culture, which it claimed had been brought to the new jail by officers from Leicester. 'It was going to be the Whitemoor unit and it was going to be run along Whitemoor lines,' said Mr King. 'We've been totally opposed to shopping trips since it started. Our view was, if we'd wanted to get involved in shopping we would have gone to work for a supermarket.'

At first the management supported this change, but its resolution cracked after sustained lobbying from inmates who wanted the status quo preserved.

'I think it held for about 24 hours,' said Mr King.

'The inmates went straight to the governor and kicked up a fuss. We were undermined. If you're facing an angry inmate and you say, 'I'm sorry, you're not entitled to that' and then the following day he says, 'Go and get it because I'm now entitled,' you lose an awful lot of credibility.'

THE ANGRIEST comments from staff at Whitemoor prison were not, however, about security and shopping trips. They were about privatisation.

Officers felt 'threatened' and 'slapped in the face'. One asked: 'What's the point of working hard if we're going to be sold off?'

Mr King summed up the feelings of the officers: 'If we actually perform well as a prison, the threat is that our reward will be to go out to private tender, leaving us to compete for our own jobs.'

People in the criminal justice system are at best amazed and at worst appalled by the spectacle of US companies such as the Correction Corporation of America from Nashville, Tennessee, and the Wackenhut Corporation of Coral Gables, Florida, taking over the management of jails in Redditch and Doncaster.

Until the late Eighties, every 20th-century Tory philosopher, no matter how ardent his devotion to the free market, has drawn the line at privatising law and order and asserted that justice and punishment, like defence, should remain the monopoly of the state.

Lord Russell, the Liberal Democrat peer and historian of the 17th century, said there had been nothing comparable with the current jail privatisation programme since James I raised money by selling to contractors the right to manage London's Fleet prison.

'It was recognised then as a dangerous idea,' Lord Russell noted. 'If you could not pay for your food and lodging you were punished. One unfortunate inmate who did not pay up was locked in a cell with a man who had tried to murder him. He did not survive the experience.'

Mr Howard has none the less embraced the notion of private management of prisons with enthusiasm, making it one of his central policies. Private management will raise standards and save money, he has said. His belief has not been dented by the controversies about Group 4 losing prisoners, the suicides and minor riots in Wackenhut's Doncaster prison, and the disturbances in Correction Corporation's Blackenhurst jail near Redditch.

Four jails are already under private management. Eight more will be put out to tender before the 'initial phase' of privatisation ends in 1996. Selected jails are to be 'market tested' - a process which involves managers and staff bidding against private companies for the contract to run their prison.

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, said the policy had contributed to the malaise in the prisons. 'Inevitably people think about it when their jobs are at stake,' he said. 'They cannot put it on the back-burner and concentrate on their prime task, which is security.

'It was not until last month that dispersal prisons such as Whitemoor learnt they were not going to be market-tested in the initial programme.'

With privatisation has come an Eighties business culture which, Mr O'Friel said, placed management skills, which can allegedly be applied universally in any institution, above experience and knowledge of prisons.

The personification of the new order is Derek Lewis, a former television executive brought in by Kenneth Clarke as Director-General of the Prison Service. On the day of his appointment he said he had never been in a jail in his life. Corporate language has followed him. There is now a 'Prison Service Business Plan' complete with performance indicators and statements of purpose, goals, values and visions.

Mr O'Friel said that, as a result of the emphasis on management rather than experience, no one in the chain of command above the governor of Whitemoor had first-hand knowledge of the problems of working with dangerous inmates and the precautions that should be taken.

The governor's immediate boss is Amy Edwards, the area manager and a career civil servant. Above her on the Prisons Board is Phillipa Drew, another civil servant who has spent her life in Whitehall. Then there is Mr Lewis, from the world of television and motorway service station management, and finally Mr Howard, a lawyer and politician.

'Ten years ago, if you were responsible for custody management you had to have experience of turning keys in locks,' Mr O'Friel said. 'But that world has gone.'

MR HOWARD's second key policy, of not worrying about the rise in jail numbers, also has a direct bearing on events in Whitemoor, his critics maintain.

In the late Eighties, the Conservatives made an effort to reduce the jail population. 'Prisons were an expensive way of making bad people worse,'

a 1991 White Paper famously proclaimed.

The reforms were not necessarily the product of a supposedly liberal Home Office establishment getting its way. One senior civil servant said they were fully in line with a Thatcherite emphasis on value for money. 'We wanted to see if resources could be better spent on preventing crime, helping victims and rehabilitating minor offenders,' he said. 'Efficiency and effectiveness were the watchwords.'

At the end of 1992, however, there was a spectacular U- turn, prompted in part by press criticism. Provisions in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act which limited the use of jail by ordering the courts to pay less regard to previous offences were abandoned. A plan to relate fines to earnings, which was intended to reduce the number of petty criminals in prison, was also dropped. Between January 1993 and today - a period of 21 months - the British prison population has grown by 25 per cent, from 40,000 to 50,000.

'It's disingenuous to say that this pressure of numbers is not the result of government policy and that a jail with too many prisoners is not going to have problems,' said Paul Cavadino, chairman of the anti-government Penal Affairs Consortium.

Although Whitemoor is not overcrowded, Mr O'Friel insisted that the crisis brought about by rising numbers directly affected the Cambridgeshire prison because it diverted the attention of the officials who were supposed to ensure the IRA men stayed behind bars.

The control of terrorists and other serious offenders is the responsibility of DOC1, and Whitemoor is meant to be one of its prime concerns. But DOC1 is also responsible for the prison population and the moving of inmates round the country in what is becoming an increasingly frantic search for vacant cells.

'Inevitably, with numbers rising so fast, they have been worrying more about coping with the population than security,' said Mr O'Friel. 'They say they haven't - but they have.'

With prison numbers still rising, privatisations proceeding, staff morale sinking ever lower and scandal following scandal, Mr Howard may soon find himself wishing that Baroness Denton had not expressed her code of practice for ministerial resignations in quite such simple terms.

Leading article, page 20

(Photograph and graph omitted)

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