Leading Article: Howard must act on prison misery

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The filthy conditions, poor staffing and austere regime revealed yesterday at Holloway prison is the story of yet another jail that has been allowed to descend into Victorian squalor. A prison that was once a proud example of penal reform has been allowed to deteriorate because of staff shortages, financial cutbacks, a security clampdown, a reduction in educational and recreational programmes and a policy of locking inmates in their cells for longer periods.

Let us not forget that many of the women in Holloway are not there for particularly serious offences. A number were incarcerated after failing to pay a fine for not having a television licence. Many are on remand and have not been found guilty of any offence. In short, neither the criminality of the women, nor indeed the risk of escape, warranted a regime in Holloway under which, according to the board of prison visitors, many women are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.

But the Holloway crisis raises broader issues beyond the particular prison. Like the Strangeways riot in 1989, it goes to the heart of current penal policy. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has some serious questions to answer.

The appalling conditions at Holloway - so bad that the Chief Inspector of Prisons cut short his inspection to make known his findings - could easily be reproduced elsewhere in the country because of changes in government policy. As a result, only an optimist could say that Holloway will prove to be exceptional in the coming years.

At the Conservative Party conference in October, the Home Secretary announced measures designed to send prisoners to jail for longer. He proposes that second-time violent and sex offenders should get life and prisoners should enjoy reduced remission. These initiatives could increase the population in jail by up to 20,000 in two years.

Then there are the cuts in prison service funding announced in last month's Budget - more than 10 per cent over three years. And staff are now expected to place greater emphasis on security, following Sir John Learmont's report, published in October, into escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst prisons. As a result, prison officers are going to find themselves more thinly stretched. Already, as a result of shrinking budgets, record numbers of prisoners and political demands for tougher regimes, governors are cutting back on work, welfare and education programmes and home visits.

Put these developments together and you could get the sort of deterioration in prison conditions that General Sir David Ramsbotham has described at Holloway.

The danger is that the Government will ignore a deterioration that could leave the prison system vulnerable to disturbances on a Strangeways scale. We now know that Holloway's board of prison visitors alerted ministers to what was going on a number of times over the past two years. The Government had, it should be said in mitigation, recently released additional funds to improve conditions. But ministers were clearly prepared to let inmates live for some time in inadequate circumstances.

The governor of Holloway must explain the management failures that took place in her establishment. But Michael Howard must also tell us, as he plans an expanded prison population, cuts in prison funding and tougher, longer sentences, how he can ensure that Holloway's misery will not be repeated across the country.