Concern over prison switch

PRISON watchdogs have voiced major concerns over the "potential distress" caused by moving female inmates currently held in Suffolk hundreds of miles away from their homes and children.

PRISON watchdogs have voiced major concerns over the "potential distress" caused by moving female inmates currently held in Suffolk hundreds of miles away from their homes and children.

Officials fear HMP Edmunds Hill's switch from a female unit to a 300-space male prison could also cause severe disruption to staff.

The Prison Service's decision to "re-role" the jail has been criticised as "hasty" by inspectors, who fear a predicted rise in the male inmate population has not been accurately forecast.

Speaking after yesterday's publication of the Independent Monitoring Board's annual report into conditions at the jail, Patricia Cave, chairman of the group, said additional concerns had been raised that female inmates may not find new placements in time for the change in August.

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Prisoners are not yet being moved to alternative sites and, although HMP Bromsfield, a privately-run women's jail, is due to open next month, the block's location in Middlesex is also likely to cause difficulties, she said.

"A large number of the prisoners at Edmunds Hill are remand prisoners, coming straight from the courts, and can arrive at any time of the day and night," said Mrs Cave. "Edmunds Hill will accept them fairly late, but it is quite possible these women will have to travel some distance to a prison when the jail is re-roled.

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"This can be quite disturbing, as they obviously would like to be placed as close to their families and visitors as possible. Realistically that does not happen. The inmates might find themselves, geographically, a long way from home, and there is potential distress involved in this.

"Another major concern is whether there will be places for these women in time, so that the move is not disruptive. We also did not really accept the reasons for the re-roling, and thought it was a hasty decision. We are not convinced by the argument that the male population is growing faster than expected."

However, the IMB report praised the work of staff and Mrs Cave said morale was currently high.

But she also predicted problems for officers who may be relocated as a result of the recategorisation – and described their future as "uncertain."

"Morale is good with staff, but they will also find the re-roling difficult," added Mrs Cave. "The balance at the moment is towards women, so some of these female staff will have to be moved to other prisons. They currently do not know what is going to happen to them.

"It is possible Highpoint may be able to absorb some of the women, but there will be the necessity for some female staff to go elsewhere.

"I think some are quite happy to stay, as it will provide a new aspect to the job and there will be career potential there to learn how to deal with male prisoners. It is more to do with the location, and whether or not they will have to move house, their families and their children's schools. I have been incredibly impressed by the way the staff have accepted the decision, but it is an uncertain time for them."

When the recategorisation occurs, the two male units at Edmunds Hill and Highpoint will remain separate, with individual governors running each jail.

Responding to the criticisms, a spokesman for the Prison Service said discussions would be held with both inmates and staff, and individual circumstances considered, before decisions on relocation were made.

He added: "The decision to re-role has not been taken lightly, and obviously this is a wider issue in terms of the whole Prison Service estate."

No-one from the Prison Officers Association was available for comment yesterday.

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