Just as with electronic tagging and prison privatisation, the Government's reported enthusiasm for a British Alcatraz is another sign of the obsession with American law and order fads. Supermax prisons are all the rage in the US and it seems one or two are to be recommended in the forthcoming report on prison security from general Sir John Learmont.
Of course, there is a case for concentrating the greatest security risks in one or more fortress prisons. By focusing resources on those who genuinely pose a severe threat to the public, security levels elsewhere in the system could be reduced. But there is a significant down side. The costs - both to build and to run a Supermax - are likely to be exorbitant. Who would envy the staff asked to work there? And what message would be sent to the prisoners, confined to a jail they would see as the end of the line?
Only a fool would deny the seriousness of the escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst that have led to this Supermax proposal. In the space of four months, more top-security prisoners escaped than in the previous 30 years put together. The breakouts themselves, the use of guns, and the discovery of Semtex explosive were an appalling operational failure and a grave embarrassment for the Prison Service and the Government.
But it is worth remembering that the Whitemoor escape was from that jail's Special Security Unit (since renamed in a classic case of old wine in new bottles as the High Security Unit - presumably on the grounds that it was not specially secure). It seems one reason for the complacency among Whitemoor staff and Prison Service officials was the belief that the unit was escape-proof.
Throughout history, prisoners have tried to escape from captivity. It is a natural human reaction to confinement. Similarly, in prisons down the ages, it has been the duty of prison administrators to make escape as difficult as possible.
But since the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes, the Prison Service has been engaged in security overkill. It has lost sight of that balance between the needs of security, control and justice which, in his report following the Strangeways prison riot, Lord Woolf said was critical to effective prison management.
When it is published in a couple of weeks' time, the Learmont report is likely to contain little of comfort for either the Home Secretary or Prison Service HQ. There is a danger, therefore, that they will seize on his recommendation for a Supermax as a way of deflecting attention from his other criticisms and proposals. Indeed, it is ironic that the idea of a Supermax is being floated at a time when some of the prime candidates - members of the IRA - are busy being transferred to prisons across the Irish Sea.
The writer is director of the Prison Reform Trust.Reuse content