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INSIDE OUT Sir Peter goes on the record.

Sir Peter Woodhead is the sort of man who normally gets his own way. After all, he was an Admiral in the Navy, and our number two during the Falklands War. So it is rather sad to hear him describe his time as our very first Prison Ombudsman - he was appo inted in 1994 - as "not the most challenging," despite the progress that he believes has taken place as a result of the office of Ombudsman being created.

We are speaking at the New Bridge Youth Conference, and Peter is talking "on the record" prior to standing down as Ombudsman next year. He is in reflective mood as he describes to me the 2,000 complaints that he handles each year, all of which have been handled by the Prison Service prior to coming to him, and lists some of the dreadful replies that the Prison Service has given to prisoners who have complained.

One prisoner, for example, was advised that "his complaint reminds him of of a film in which old people were re-cycled as high protein biscuits," and another, who was incarcerated in a prison in mid-Yorkshire, that he had to have his naval chart of the E nglish Channel removed - he was on an NVQ course - as this was "an aid to escape!"

Peter is quite clear why replies like these get written, and why the number of complaints art so high. Pulling no punches, he advises me - "well, I don't really need to tell you," that "middle management in the Prison Service is awful" in that "it is a p ost box - it passes complaints up to the junior governors, who are far too busy, and then it gets long-winded and bureaucratic."

He continues in this vein, and is scathing about the "cultural deficiencies of the Prison Service." Instead of "holding up their hands and admitting a mistake," when something goes wrong "they circle the wagons, and protect each other, which allows insti tutional inertia to set in, whereby one level of the Prison Service supports another level of the Prison Service, which supports another level of the Prison Service."

Sir Peter is pleased that the number of complaints that he upholds against the Prison Service has fallen - from 69 per cent when he first started to just over 40 per cent now - which suggests that there has been some improvement, but he remains worried a bout two particular things. First, the number of deaths in custody, and the refusal of the Prison Service to release the official report of the internal inquiry into the death, which he believes merely leads the family to believe that there is some form of "conspiracy." Secondly he dislikes the way that strip searching "is sometimes used to humiliate prisoners."

So Sir Peter is about to stand down, and when I asked him what would have made his job more challenging he replies unhesitatingly that the rules that Michael Howard changed to prevent him looking at the decisions taken by Home Office Ministers should be reversed, and he is hopeful that the Labour Home affairs team will be more sympathetic to this particular issue. I joke with him that I don't remember seeing this in the Queen's Speech, but he remains, he says "hopeful."

Dr David Wilson is director of the criminal justice, policy and practice department at the University of Central England.
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Author:Wilson, David
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 28, 1998
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