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Volunteer visitors keep a watchful eye on British prison system

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WHEN Judy Veale knocks on the door at Her Majesty's Prison Channings Wood, she is admitted - any day of the year, anytime of the day or night, anywhere she wants to go. She is part of a nationwide citizens group here called Boards of Visitors. Made up of volunteers, these boards - which date from the Victorian era - fulfill both a pastoral and watchdog role in British corrections.

Every prison and detention center for youth has such a board. The boards consist of five members, who are authorized by law to inspect the physical conditions of these facilities.

Each board files an annual report directly to the home secretary of the national government. (All prisons are national in Britain; they are either state or federal in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of convicted felons are held in state prisons.)

``Often we see conditions we don't approve of,'' says Mrs. Veale, who is chairman of the coordinating committee for the Boards of Visitors, ``like three inmates in one cell designed for one, no plumbing, with infrequent bathing.'' ``We can press for changes and improvements that a governor [British equivalent of a warden in the US] is not making much headway on,'' Veale says. ``We are in a way an insurance policy to governors, staff, and inmates.''

In addition, a member of a prison's visiting board is required by law to sit on the local parole review committee. This is the first stage of the parole process in Britain. The board member will have firsthand knowledge about any parole applicant, making what can easily be an impersonal, bureaucratic process much less so, says Lord Windlesham, chairman of the Parole Board for the national government.

``One of the members will have interviewed the applicant in private,'' he says. Great weight is placed on the Board of Visitors' recommendation in granting or not granting parole.

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