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Drugs and corruption are rife in our prisons. We must clean them up

Nick Cohen, The Observer, 21st August 2006

'Thank goodness the Obscene Publications Squad has gone,' sighed a fraught Mr Justice Mars-Jones in 1976 as he sent down Detective Chief Inspector George Fenwick and four of his colleagues for taking bribes from Soho pornographers. 'I fear the damage you have done may be with us for a long time.'

The kickbacks to a squad that ran a protection racket for the dirty-book trade were part of a wider pattern of corruption whose exposure forced the prosecution, dismissal or early retirement of almost 400 Metropolitan Police officers. It stands as a warning against nostalgically romanticising the rectitude of the British public servant. But there is an equal and opposite danger of underestimating it. Whatever other vices people expect to encounter when they deal with the British state - obscurantism, profligacy, political correctness, pettiness, stupidity and sloth - they don't expect corruption. This isn't Nigeria, or even Italy. The overwhelming majority of British citizens never pays bribes and would be astonished if officials demanded money from them. We remember Fenwick and his 'dirty squad' because proven cases of corruption are so rare.

I wonder if that is changing, particularly in the prison service. Last week, the governor of Pentonville suspended 14 officers because of supposedly 'inappropriate relations with prisoners'. They face allegations that they ran a smuggling ring which brought drugs and mobile phones into the jail. A few days before, a leaked report from a joint police and prison anti-corruption unit estimated that there were 1,000 bent prison officers. It quoted one unnamed governor as saying: 'Here corruption is endemic... I have identified over 20 corrupt staff, but there may be more.' A second said: 'I currently have 10 corrupt staff and am managing the threat they pose to my prison - positive mandatory drug testing figures are over 20 per cent, so it must be staff bringing in drugs.'

I know of governors who worry that drug cartels are ordering gang members with clean records to apply for jobs in their jails. You can see why they would want them on the inside. There's a captive market - 70 per cent of prisoners used drugs before they were convicted - and, in accordance with market economics, prices reflect scarcity value and are far higher than on the outside.

The thing to say at this point would be that the jails are in crisis and criminals are taking advantage of the chaos. It is true that prisons are close to bursting and, in areas of full employment, it is also hard to find recruits to work in an unappealing job for an unattractive salary. Most are on around £22,000. Absurdly, while probation officers receive two years of training, prison officers are given a mere six weeks. Underpaid and underprepared, they are put alongside criminals who are experts in arts of corruption. What do you expect?

But if you read the reports of Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, you find that most jails are coping with overcrowding surprisingly well. There are horror stories. Her account of Rye Hill Prison near Rugby can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you try to imagine what it would like to be abandoned in a hellhole where mothers complain that their sons aren't safe because the frightened guards are bullied into submission by the most belligerent prisoners.

Rye Hill is a private prison, however. Owers has not produced reports about inexperienced staff in public-sector prisons 'surviving by ignoring misbehaviour or evidence of illicit possessions'. On the contrary, most jails take contraband very seriously - which may be the problem.

Twenty years ago, the authorities reasoned that dope kept potentially violent men quiet. The smell of cannabis seeping from the cells could all but knock you out. Now, inmates are subject to random drug tests and their visitors to intrusive searches. A woman smoking cannabis on the outside gets little more than a slap on the wrist. If she is caught smuggling it in for her jailed partner, she is treated as a supplier and faces being jailed herself.

This tough stance has pushed up the price of drugs on the inside and made corruption of officers the best way to bring goods to a lucrative market. A cartel that can get sales reps on the inside enjoys a huge commercial advantage. Determination to stop visitors smuggling in drugs has, in effect, crippled the competition.

Operation Countryman stopped the corruption of the Met in the Seventies. Sir Robert Mark, the commissioner at the time, realised that only officers from outside his force would have the independence to go for bent London coppers. The prison service and the immigration service, being hit by similar scandals, need outsiders to take a hard look at them now. Investigators should be free to operate without the knowledge or approval of governors or Home Office managers and follow up leads without fear of the consequences. There are British traditions that are worth defending, and clean government is one of them.

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