LONDON — BRITAIN has a bit of experience relevant for those get-tough-on-crime politicians in the United States.
Trying to fight crime by building and filling more and more jails is embarrassing Britain's Conservative government.
Home Secretary Michael Howard came to office 18 months ago, declaring that ``prison works'' and promising hard-line penal regimes. But now he has been forced to order a policy review amid calls for his resignation among the opposition Labour Party.
A spokesman for the League for Penal Reform, a long-standing advocate of rehabilitation of inmates instead of severe punishment, says prison policy under Mr. Howard is ``a shambles'' and is caught in a contradiction between ``a wish to be harsh'' and ``experience which shows that harshness is counterproductive.''
Howard's problems have been sparked by a spate of high- profile prison security lapses this month. In one incident on Jan. 3, two murderers and an arsonist serving life terms at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight broke out, using a key they had made in the jail workshop.
Parkhurst was thought to be one of the most secure jails in Britain, but two hours passed before staff realized the men had escaped. They remained at large for five days.
Howard attempted to recuperate Jan. 10 by ordering a thorough examination of security in all British jails. He also ordered the immediate removal of the Parkhurst governor.
This earned him rebukes from the Labour opposition and from David Roddan, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, who said Howard was ``using [the Parkhurst governor] as a scapegoat.''
The crisis has focused public attention on an apparent discrepancy between Howard's demands for tougher treatment of inmates and the failure or inability of prison staff to make such demands reality in jails, many of which are crammed full.
At the same time, a rapid build-up of the prison population had intensified pressure on staff. Stephen Shaw, director of the privately funded Prison Reform Trust, says Howard's wish to make greater use of jail as a form of punishment has caused the number of prison inmates to rise from 42,000 to 50,000 in 12 months.
This, he says, has led to ``general overcrowding,'' with serious offenders being brought into close proximity with short-sentence prisoners.
Added to this, Mr. Shaw says, Howard has set the prison service ``productivity targets,'' resulting in reduced staffing levels and lower morale among inmates and warders.
Shaw also claims the government appears confused over ``what prisons are for.'' Two years before Howard became Home Secretary, a program for improving conditions in British jails was put into effect. In 1990 Lord Woolf, a senior judge, urged the government to hold inmates in jails as close as possible to their families and improve recreational facilities inside prisons.
But while Woolf's program was being implemented, Howard came to office and ordered ``a crackdown'' in the nation's jails.
At Parkhurst, the governor's relatively lenient and humane regime appears to have collided with the Home Secretary's orders for a much more austere one. The League for Penal Reform says the Parkhurst governor had been made ``a sacrificial lamb'' by Howard.
``The real issue is not security at Parkhurst but the fundamentally misdirected policies the Home Secretary has in relation to criminal justice,'' it said in a statement.
Sacking prison governors would not solve ``overcrowding or the wasteful and counterproductive use of prison.''