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Leading article: Liberalism still has a place in penal policy

There are clearly deficiencies in the management of Ford prison in west Sussex. We must wait on the results of the official investigation into the events of recent days to get a clear picture, but early reports suggest that prisoners had been drinking on New Year's Eve and went on the rampage after staff attempted to breathalyse them. The damage has been considerable. Rioters burned down six accommodation blocks, a gym, a mail room and a snooker room. Around 160 prisoners will now have to be transferred to other jails.

The warning signs were there. A report last year by Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, said that alcohol, drugs and mobile phones were regularly being smuggled into the open prison. Insufficient staffing also appears to have been a factor. It has been claimed that there were only two officers and four support staff on duty supervising almost 500 inmates when the trouble started.

But this incident should not result in an official lurch away from the more progressive approach to penal policy set out by the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, last month. Prisoners should, of course, be prevented from taking alcohol into open prisons. Yet it should not be forgotten that lower security is the point of these institutions.

Open prisons play an important part in the rehabilitation process, helping inmates who are approaching the end of their sentences to adapt gradually to normal life. At Ford inmates can wander freely around the complex and even go on day release. Ford also provides facilities for inmates to engage in vocational training and study for educational qualifications. This sort of liberal regime is the strength of these institutions.

Prison policy for the past two decades has been subject to a ratchet effect. Every time politicians have turned their attention to the sector, in response to some public outcry, they have imposed a more punitive approach. Ford's failings need to be addressed. An unsafe prison is plainly one in which rehabilitation cannot be effective. Yet this riot should not be used as an excuse by the Coalition to revert to the counterproductive penal policies of recent years.