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What Happens When Conservatives Get Tough on Crime

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BRITAIN has a bit of experience relevant for those get-tough-on-crime politicians in the United States.

Trying to fight crime by building and filling more and more jails is embarrassing Britain's Conservative government.

Home Secretary Michael Howard came to office 18 months ago, declaring that ``prison works'' and promising hard-line penal regimes. But now he has been forced to order a policy review amid calls for his resignation among the opposition Labour Party.

A spokesman for the League for Penal Reform, a long-standing advocate of rehabilitation of inmates instead of severe punishment, says prison policy under Mr. Howard is ``a shambles'' and is caught in a contradiction between ``a wish to be harsh'' and ``experience which shows that harshness is counterproductive.''

Howard's problems have been sparked by a spate of high- profile prison security lapses this month. In one incident on Jan. 3, two murderers and an arsonist serving life terms at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight broke out, using a key they had made in the jail workshop.

Parkhurst was thought to be one of the most secure jails in Britain, but two hours passed before staff realized the men had escaped. They remained at large for five days.

Howard attempted to recuperate Jan. 10 by ordering a thorough examination of security in all British jails. He also ordered the immediate removal of the Parkhurst governor.

This earned him rebukes from the Labour opposition and from David Roddan, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, who said Howard was ``using [the Parkhurst governor] as a scapegoat.''

The crisis has focused public attention on an apparent discrepancy between Howard's demands for tougher treatment of inmates and the failure or inability of prison staff to make such demands reality in jails, many of which are crammed full.

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