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Seeking solitary: prison gang wars force fearful inmates to plead for segregation

· Jail watchdogs warn of growth of gang culture
· Influx of new generation of violent inmates blamed

* Alan Travis, home affairs editor
* The Guardian, Monday 18 February 2008
* Article history

Gang members

The segregation units in Britain’s high security prisons used to be full of prisoners being punished for breaking the rules or being held in solitary because they were too dangerous to mix with others.

But now the “seg units” at institutions such as Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire are packed with a different kind of prisoner: those so fearful for their safety that they have asked to be isolated for their own protection.

Jail watchdogs have warned that an influx of rival gang members from Britain’s inner cities has fuelled a new wave of fear and violence at the five maximum security prisons.

This new generation, who have been schooled in street gun and gang culture, bring with them deeply held gang allegiances. Once inside they use all their ingenuity to equip themselves with homemade, but nevertheless lethal, weapons to settle scores with rival gang members and protect their illicit trade in drugs and mobile phones.

Ministers have been warned by independent monitoring boards (IMBs) at two of the five prisons that the problem has become so acute that it has now become “extremely difficult” to find enough category A accommodation to separate sentenced members from rival gangs. They confirm that the segregation units at both jails are occupied by a majority of prisoners who have been asked to be isolated for their own safety.

The disclosure of this high-level concern over gang culture in the high security estate comes as the prison population in England and Wales reached a new record at the weekend of 81,918 – just 100 places short of its maximum “bust” capacity.

The latest IMB report from the Whitemoor high security prison says the rising number of prisoners from different gangs has already sparked short periods of unrest on the wings and is now a major problem affecting all five of the high security “dispersal” prisons in England and Wales.

At Long Lartin prison, Worcestershire, the monitoringboard has told ministers that an atmosphere of superficial calm domesticity inside coexists with the threat – and the practice – of violence.

“Some men are known to suffer injuries; others probably go unreported. Many more are fearful and seek protection,” says the latest report from the watchdog to the justice secretary, Jack Straw.

“At least part of the explanation must lie with the wave of young men who have reached prison in the last few years. Typically they are in their 20s and undergoing very long sentences; some of them face more years in prison than they have already lived. Some bring with them deep allegiances and very strong antipathies.”

The IMB’s annual report says that among them are men for whom the use of weapons is not so much a tactical decision but more an expression of a way of life. “They devote much of their energy, influence and ingenuity to equipping themselves with blades and stabbers which, although improvised, have an utterly lethal potential. The rate at which these were being discovered during the middle part of the year was deeply alarming.”

The result is a frequently full segregation unit, the majority of whom are prisoners who have sought protection because of violent threats over debts they can’t repay or because other prisoners simply make life on the wing intolerable for them.

The underlying problem of this armed gang culture in top security prisons is not going to go away, according to the IMB, as long as grave crimes go on being committed in the cities and extraordinarily long sentences are being handed down.

“These prisoners are going to be a great challenge,” it says. “Managing them successfully calls for a substantial effort by all who contribute to intelligence, wing allocation and searching. It also needs the high security estate to make thoughtful and well-informed allocations between its dispersal prisons.”

At Whitemoor the IMB has told ministers that as more gang-related prisoners arrive staff have fewer options. “This is a matter affecting the whole of the high-security estate,” it says. “Prison officers are having to cope with more and more volatile mixes of prisoners because the ability to move individuals around is now very limited.”

A Prison Service spokesman said: “We recognise that gang associations are an issue in prisons, including the high-security estate. Allocation decisions in the high-security estate are based on available intelligence on the individual and the risk posed to him and by him.”

He said that a specific project was under way looking at how best to develop options on how to deal with gang membership. “Governors and directors of prisons are responsible for ensuring the development, implementation and maintenance of a local violence-reduction strategy. This must include consideration of sources of conflict that are imported from outside prison, particularly gang-related issues.”

Current Prison Service policy does not separate rival gang members as a matter of course and says it will be done only where there is an established risk of disorder or to the safety of staff and other prisoners.

An agreed “rotational system” is put into operation when a high number of gang members are present in a single jail.

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