First look inside new wing at Norwich Prison

Its Victorian A-wing was once dubbed unfit for human habitation but today Norwich prison will enter a new era with the opening of a �26m jail block. Crime correspondent BEN KENDALL reports on the bid to consign Dickensian conditions to the past.

Its Victorian A-wing was once dubbed unfit for human habitation but today Norwich prison will enter a new era with the opening of a �26m jail block. Crime correspondent BEN KENDALL reports on the bid to consign Dickensian conditions to the past.

Two years ago Norwich prison's dilapidated A-wing gained national notoriety after it was closed by inspectors over concerns for the welfare of inmates only to be re-opened by the government three days later to ease the pressures of overcrowding.

Rat invested, damp and dotted with broken windows, nesting pigeons and blocked waste pipes, it was described as among the worst accommodation inspectors had ever seen.

It now stands empty and although it will not be demolished, with the locks and toilets removed, it seems unlikely it will ever be re-commissioned.

Along the way there have been compensation claims by convicts who say it was 'unfit for animals'. There was even a failed and, according to the governor, misguided attempt by planners to grant it listed status.

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Finally the saga is at an end as governor Paul Baker prepares to open a new A-wing today. The state of the art unit, built on spare land to the rear of the prison, will specialise in treating drug addicted prisoners with the aim of reducing re-offending on their release.

Criminals with drug problems make up roughly two-thirds of the nation's prison population and it is hoped that by targeting addiction it will be possible to help cut reoffending rates which currently stand at 69pc.

Mr Baker said: 'We will adopt a two pronged approach. Firstly we will offer inmates all the support they need to tackle their habit. But, if they are not willing to co-operate, we will not hesitate to be tough with them - they may find themselves in segregation or, if their drug taking continues, have days added to their sentence.

'We don't want anybody to have any excuse to not address their problems while in Norwich prison.

'There have been issues in the prison service for many years that have meant, in many cases, to more time a person spends in prison the worse they get. That is something that we have to tackle.'

The 210-space wing will take the Knox Road jail up to a 765 capacity. It had been operating with just 457 prisoners inside while the building work was completed.

Much publicity during the prisons crisis focussed on inmates being forced to 'double up' in cells. The new wing has 30 double cells, aimed at ensuring first nighters are not left alone, but the remaining 150 are single.

It features hi-tech equipment including eye scanners and airlocks which mean prisoners can only have access to the drugs necessary for their rehabilitation.

'The lengths prisoners will go to in order to get drugs are incredible,' Mr Baker said.

'This should go a long way to limiting that but it has been known for prisoners to swallow their methadone before going back to their sell and regurgitating it to sell on.

'When you are dealing with that kind of desperation you constantly have to be alert to what they're up to.'

In Norwich alone 2,500 prisoners required help with drug problems last year and fewer than half successfully completed their treatment.

One common complaint in prisons is that inmates spend too much time locked up because there is not enough activity for them. Horror stories of prisoners spending up to 23 hours in their cells each day have often been reported.

But Mr Baker said: 'On average prisoners will spend eight and a half hours out of their cells, some could spend 12 hours out. There is no way we will have people locked up for 23 hours a day as it would serve no purpose; it would simply make bad people worse.'

Alongside the new wing is a block containing education facilities and a gym. The aim will be to provide drug education and lessons on healthy living. 'We want to create a clean and professional environment because we believe that will rub off on the prisoners,' Mr Baker added.

Along with traditional three-month rehabilitation courses the prison will also offer five-week courses, available the moment a person enters jail on remand, for those serving shorter sentences.

Although millions have been spent on the wing, Mr Baker is keen to emphasise inmates will not be living in luxury. The cells are sparse and just big enough to hold a bed, desk, toilet and basin with minimal floor space.

An inner fence has been erected near the unit to prevent drugs being thrown over the wall from outside.

Mr Baker said: 'The prison now has a range of accommodation from different eras but I am satisfied that all our cells are now up to scratch.

'We have to evolve and as a governor I will never be satisfied but we have come a long way from the frankly Dickensian conditions that did exist in parts of this prison and still exist elsewhere.

'There are problems with the out-dated prison estate across the country and we can't solve that over night. But building programmes like this will help move us into the 21st century.'

The money has been spent on special features which will help prisoners remain safe while going through difficult detoxifications.

For example, cells are designed to minimise the risk of suicide. There are no ligature points and even taps have been replaced by buttons. Mirrors have been placed in the corners so that inmates cannot hide from a guard looking through their cell door.

The block also features adapted cells for disabled prisoners who traditionally would have spent their term in the healthcare unit, away from the main population.

Mr Baker said: 'In the outside world we would not segregate disabled people, we would just give them what they needed to lead a normal life. Why should it be any different in here?

'They should serve their time in prison just like everybody else. We have provided wider cells and adapted bathroom facilities, but other than that there is no need to treat them differently.'

Initially between 20 and 30 prisoners a week will move into the wing so that staff can gradually become accustomed to the new way of working. It should be operating at full capacity in about two months.

At the same time the prison is working on integrating young offenders, aged over 18, with the adult population. The governor believes this will eliminate cliques and gang culture among young offenders who, in the absence of adult prisoners, often transfer their life on the streets to life behind bars.

The slogan for the wing, 'a new life starts here', has been chosen to reflect the fact it represents both a fresh start for the prison and for prisoners.

Although Britain's prisons remain crammed, this should be a step in the right direction in tackling the menace of drugs and in turn the menace of crime.

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