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Responding to Violence, Suicide, Psychosis and Trauma

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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Jail experts to tackle suicide surge

Penal reformers raise the alarm after five convicts kill themselves in one year at Whitemoor high-security prison

This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday January 20 2008 on p14 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 23:40 on January 19 2008.

A specialist investigation team is to be sent into one of Britain’s high-security jails after five of its prisoners committed suicide in just over a year.

The spate of deaths at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire has shocked penal experts, who are calling for an urgent independent inquiry after receiving private briefings from senior staff.

Each year between 80 and 90 prisoners commit suicide in Britain’s prisons, which currently hold some 82,000 inmates. For five men to kill themselves in just one jail, which has around 450 prisoners, is considered statistically significant, according to experts. Two other inmates at Whitemoor have also died of natural causes within the last year.

Probation workers at Whitemoor report that in the past year there has been a significant increase in the use of segregation units at the prison, while there have been cutbacks in the number of staff on duty at night.

David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City university, who has been briefed on conditions within the jail by two of its senior members of staff, said questions needed to be asked about the role of the prison managers and in particular its governor, Steven Rodford, and his deputy, Phil Novis. ‘It’s the governor and his senior management team who set the tone for everything that happens in that jail,’ Wilson said.

Frances Crook, the director of pressure group the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: ‘The frequency of suicides in custody has always been a barometer of the health of our prisons, and in Whitemoor’s case the barometer appears to be off the scale.’

Ministry of Justice sources said the head of the prison service, Phil Wheatley, believes Whitemoor’s governors are ‘model’ managers who have transformed the prison. When Rodford took over as governor, 60 staff at Whitemoor were off sick each day. This has now been cut to 30, according to the ministry sources.

But there are still signs of deep discord within Whitemoor. Two prison officers have been suspended at the jail. It is believed one of them feels they have been made a scapegoat for the suicides. It is also claimed by staff that drugs and mobile phones within the prison are in wide circulation and that, according to internal surveys, morale among officers and prisoners is low.

As a high-security prison, Whitemoor could be expected to hold prisoners who are prone to suicide. It has a specialist Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder unit, which deals with some of the most difficult offenders, and holds a number of al-Qaeda terrorists, including Saajid Badat, jailed for 13 years for plotting with the shoebomber, Richard Reid, to bring down an aircraft.

But all the men who took their lives at Whitemoor were white and had served considerable lengths of their sentence. Normally suicides occur within the first few weeks of offenders starting their sentence. In the five years before the first of the recent suicides there had been no self-inflicted deaths at the prison, which has been given a four-star rating by the prison service – the highest. The first Whitemoor inmate to take his life was Christopher Vaggers, 31, who was serving a 10-year sentence for rape. He was found hanged in the DSPD unit on 19 November, 2006.

Patrick Purcell, 40, who was in the segregation unit, died on 17 February last year after tying a ligature around his neck. Jonathan Durrant, 25, serving life for GBH, was found dead in his cell from self-inflicted wounds on 25 July.

David Croke, 64, who was serving life for murder, hanged himself on 20 November while in the segregation unit. He was on self-harm watch and had told a prison chaplain he was suicidal. James Forgan, 42, serving life for rape was found dead in his cell on 10 December.

It is not the first time questions have been raised about Whitemoor. In 2006 MPs filed an early day motion welcoming a police investigation – Operation Pond – into allegations of racial abuse and assaults by staff at the prison. Just over half – 52 per cent – of black and ethnic minority prisoners at Whitemoor claimed that they had experienced racism while at the prison. ‘The most number of complaints we get are from Whitemoor,’ said Lubia Begum of the Prisoners Advisory Service.

Rodford, governor of Whitemoor, said in a statement to The Observer that the dead prisoners had been treated well. ‘External investigating bodies (both the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and NHS Serious Untoward Incident investigations) have concluded that the prisoners had received the highest quality of clinical care. In addition, I have personally requested that a prison service support team visit Whitemoor to check the safeguarding systems in place.’

But Henry Bellingham, a local Conservative MP and a shadow minister of justice, said the prison was ‘completely out of control’.

He said: ‘Ministers need to get a grip. They are burying their heads in the sand on this issue.’

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