THE HEAD of the prison service is to retire early, dealing a serious blow to Jack Straw, the Home Secretary.
Richard Tilt, 54, the director- general, is widely recognised as having restored a sense of order to the prison service. He said yesterday he has decided to retire for "personal reasons" after Mr Straw offered to renew his three-year contract. Mr Tilt, who was reportedly working an 80-hour week, is believed to have made his decision on health grounds.
The announcement comes at a sensitive time with jail populations continuing to rise at unprecedented levels and standing at 65,980. Despite this, Mr Tilt was able to ensure the service met most of its performance targets and he was considered someone who could tackle the issue of security as well as encouraging forward-thinking regimes.
Mr Tilt became director-general in 1995, replacing Derek Lewis who was sacked by Michael Howard, who was then the Home Secretary, after the break-out from Parkhurst prison. Mr Tilt was the first director-general who hadserved as a prison governor - at Gartree and Bedford.
Yesterday, he said: "It has been a great privilege to lead the service over the last three years. I have been delighted by the support I have had from all staff and especially pleased that together we have been able to improve significantly the service's performance."
One blot during his careerwas his comment, which he later retracted, and apologised for, that black people were physiologically more prone to suffocation if held in certain restraint positions.
Mr Straw said: "Running the Prison Service is one of the most difficult management jobs to be found anywhere in the public service or private business. Richard has led the service exceptionally well through a most challenging period."
Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Richard Tilt was seen to be a safe pair of hands."
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