Prisons: Ford in flames | Editorial

The inspectors' reports and anecdotal evidence strongly imply that many of the answers to what happened lie locally

It is always easier to be wise after the event. Even so, the two most recent reports on Ford open prison by the chief inspector of prisons have a cumulatively ominous ring to them, especially in the light of the serious riots and damage there on New Year's Day. Five years ago, after a scheduled visit to Ford, the chief inspector expressed concern about overcrowding and feared that co-operation with staff might suffer as a result. Ford had many strengths, she concluded, but progress was hampered by "the inflexibility of some of the staff", about whom the inspector received many complaints, by the poor reception facilities, and by "the lack of a comprehensive resettlement strategy to drive forward all its work".

Three years later, in autumn 2008, the chief inspector went back to Ford, unannounced, and found things had become worse. Earlier inspections had drawn attention to "the inadequacy of the prison's physical environment, the poor staff-prisoner relationships, and the inadequate resettlement focus". Now, she reported: "None of these concerns had been properly addressed." Deep-cleaning routines had lapsed, the reception area was inadequate, the perimeter was poorly supervised, a fact which contributed to "the smuggling in of alcohol, especially at night, which had become a significant problem". Many staff were good, but others "remained negative and obstructive". It was "particularly disappointing that resettlement, Ford's principal role, remained a weakness". As a result, Ford was underperforming.

Two nights ago, however, Ford stopped performing at all. Early on New Year's Day, a small group of prison staff tried to test a number of prisoners for alcohol consumption. In the aftermath, around 40 inmates went on the rampage, torching important parts of the prison with fire and causing large amounts of expensive damage. For several hours, staff abandoned the prison altogether because of fears for their own safety. Yesterday, with the prison back under control, ministers confirmed two separate investigations – a police inquiry into the violence and criminal acts, and a prison service inquiry into the lessons of the incident.

The full verdict on the Ford riot must obviously await the inquiries. It is important that the public policy response is as objective and focused as possible. Much hangs, for Ford and elsewhere, on getting that response right. Much could be lost by jumping to wrong conclusions. Politicians and other vested interested are already trying to place the blame, not on the rioters or the prison staff, but on the coalition government's cuts and penal policies. While it is highly likely that overcrowding, inappropriate crisis use of open prisons for unsuitable prisoners, and cuts to staffing regimes – about which staff and campaigners have long protested – were all contributory factors in the chemistry of the riot, and while all open prisons represent a calculated risk, including on absconding, it is vital not to overlook local factors at Ford too.

The inspectors' reports and some of the post-riot anecdotal evidence strongly imply that many of the answers to what happened lie in Ford itself, rather than in spending cuts or penal policy. Ford, after all, is one of around a dozen open prisons in England. Hopefully it is not too much of a hostage to fortune to point out that inspections of some of these other open prisons, while not without problems, are more reassuring than those on Ford. Blantyre House, for example, is described as an "exceptional specialist establishment". Leyhill is reported to have shown a number of improvements and be "a very safe place" in which good efforts had been made to deal robustly with alcohol issues. Sudbury is "safe, respectful and purposeful" in spite of a large influx of new inmates. If the Prison Officers' Association is right that Ford was the proverbial accident waiting to happen, then some of its own members at Ford may be at fault, and not just Ken Clarke in London.


The GuardianTramp

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