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Britain Looks to Revamp Prisons

Harsher punishments, better living conditions are part of proposed tough-and-tender plan

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 1992


BRITAIN is setting out to modernize its overcrowded and antiquated prison system.

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A master plan combining tougher punishments and improved living conditions behind bars is described by Home Secretary Kenneth Baker as "the best way forward."

His blueprint comes after a two-year period of jail riots and politically embarrassing breakouts by top-security inmates.

But Mr. Baker is being pressured to go beyond the 25-year plan he has devised and examine measures that reformers say would greatly reduce prison numbers in Britain, which incarcerates a higher proportion of its citizens than any other West European country.

Baker is studying a report that proposes halving the number of prisoners held in maximum security and thus making it possible for hundreds of inmates to be transferred to "softer" administrations.

The Howard League for Prison Reform, which dates from the last century, is pressing Baker to order judges to impose more sentences that do not require serving time in prison and to give easier bail to detainees awaiting trial.

These ideas are being promoted as the Strangeways trial continues in Manchester. Last year, inmates rioted and took over Strangeways jail for 25 days, killing one prisoner and doing British pounds60 million ($107 million) in damage.

The conditions that provoked the riot at Strangeways are typical of those still prevailing in many British prisons built in the Dickensian era. These conditions help account for a rash of prison riots that started in 1990 and created chaos in many jails in England and Scotland.

In some cases, three Strangeways inmates were detained in cells designed to hold one person. Exercise periods were minimal, and basic plumbing in cells was nonexistent. Tension simmered between inmates and staff.

When Lord Justice Woolf, the government's inspector of prisons, reported on the state of British jails last year, he urged the earliest possible replacement of buildings like Strangeways.

He also criticized the widespread absence of modern toilet facilities and what he called the "revolting and antediluvian" practice of the unsanitary practice of "slopping out" by prisoners.

When Mr. Woolf was compiling his report, he found, for example, that at the large Wandsworth prison in London prisoners in only eight cells had access to sanitation at night.

Woolf's recommendations provided the basis for Baker's 25-year strategy, which amounts to an iron-fist-and-velvet-glove mixture of tighter security and more humane conditions.

The need to reform the prison system was further underscored last July when two Irish Republican Army suspects being held under supposedly maximum security at London's Brixton jail managed to escape. Escape equipment had been smuggled to them from outside. The men are still at large. Baker came close to resigning as home secretary after the Brixton escape.

Under the new tough-and-tender approach, Baker has asked Parliament to approve a new offense of "prison mutiny" and harsher penalties for escaping. He has also called for an end to overcrowding (but has not set a target date), a code of standards for prison food and accommodation, and the disappearance of slopping out by the end of 1994.