BRITAIN is setting out to modernize its overcrowded and antiquated prison system.
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.
Baker also proposes to have new "community prisons" built so that inmates can be detained in the areas where they normally live, making it easier for relatives and friends to visit them.
Woolf says that these changes, when implemented, will bring "radical and much needed improvement." Some critics, however, say Baker's strategy is too vague and unimaginative.
The Howard League noted that Britain still incarcerates a higher proportion of its citizens than any other West European country, with 96.5 inmates per 100,000 people. The rate is 83.5 per 100,000 in Germany and 44.6 per 100,000 in The Netherlands.
It noted, too, that more than one-fifth of the roughly 45,000 people held in jail at any one time are remand prisoners waiting for their cases to be tried. Some prisoners are held without trial for more than a year. Typically, 40 percent of remand detainees are found innocent and released.
"It is obvious that if there was freer access to bail in such cases, the problem of overcrowding would recede," a Howard League spokesman says.
Financial arguments support the reformers' preference for more noncustodial sentences. According to government figures, the prison system costs British pounds1.3 billion (US $2.3 billion) a year to run. It costs British pounds360 (US $640) a week to keep a prisoner in jail.
Teresa Gorman, a Conservative Member of Parliament and campaigner for prison reform, has calculated that the capital cost of new prisons is 10 times higher than building a five-star luxury hotel.
"Our prisons are trapped in a time warp, and everything about them is wrong," she says.
There are, however, political limits to what any Conservative government can set out to achieve in prison reform. Surveys consistently show that most Conservative Party supporters take a tough line on law and order and regard prisons as places of punishment first and rehabilitation only second.
Baker himself appears to accept that order of priority. Defending his reform strategy last September he said: "The public expects prisons to be first and foremost custodial institutions. Prisons exist to punish wrongdoers by depriving the guilty of their liberty. But they must also seek to reform their inmates."
Prison reform is unlikely to be a significant issue in this year's general election campaign, but the opposition Labour Party has promised that, if elected, it will speed up the prison reform program and inject ideas of its own.
According to Roy Hattersley, Labour's deputy leader, a greater sense of urgency in the reform program is needed.
"There should be a clear target date for an end to overcrowding which is a prime cause of prison unrest," he says.
Mr. Hattersley sides with the Howard League and another reform organization, the Prison Reform Trust, in favoring greater use of noncustodial sentencing, including probation and systems under which convicted offenders are ordered to do compulsory community work.