At British prison, inmates work out their sentences in baronial splendor

December 07, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

BIRMINGHAM, England -- Hewell Grange is the kind of prison that tempts hard-liners to say prisoners are coddled, prisoners like a former insurance man named Colin.

He's 50, graying, nicely turned out in a Nordic sweater, jeans and running shoes, and cheerful about kicking through sheep dung in his job as a shepherd because he could be doing hard time in a tough maximum-security prison.

"I've never been near a farm before in my life," Colin said. "It's surprising what you can do."

The Grange is a minimum-security prison at Redditch near Birmingham, unique in Britain's penal system. Colin still has five months to serve there on his prison sentence for fraud -- "fiddling with his clients' accounts," according to Tom Hunt, a prison officer.

Colin earns 3 pounds (about $4.50) an hour at a big poultry, pig and sheep farming and marketing company in a "working out" program called the Job Club, which was started at Hewell Grange. The Job Club is something like a work release program in Maryland.

But he's paying at least a part of the cost of keeping him in prison.

His pay goes to the "governor" of the prison, who charges him 20 pounds 91 pence a week for living at Hewell Grange. The governor holds the rest as a kind of trust account for Colin, which he can spend if he has a good enough reason.

At Hewell Grange, about 130 inmates do in fact live in baronial splendor.

The first Earl of Plymouth built the grange a century ago as a mansion for his beautiful young wife. It's full of extraordinary wood carvings, stone work, marble columns, vast halls and high galleries. It came to the prison system in the 1940s in lieu of inheritance taxes.

It's an "open" prison. There are no fences and no cells. The prisoners live in bright, high-ceilinged dormitories holding six to 12 men each. The doors are locked only at night.

The men are serving sentences of from two months to 20 years for everything except murder, serious sexual offenses and arson.

"We are a working prison," says David Bamber, the governor. Among other things, Hewell Grange is a productive farm with 100 Jersey cows, 650 pigs and large vegetable and flower gardens.

"We try to mirror as far as we can a working environment outside from within prison, which is not an easy thing to do," Mr. Bamber says. "Everybody works."

The inmates go to school, work on the farm, do domestic work at the grange, train for trades and do construction work.

"In many respects, it's like putting a wall of rules and responsibilities around the institution instead of building one out of concrete and wire," Mr. Bamber says.

In the last year, 600 men have been in Hewell Grange. Only 15 absconded.

Thirty-two men like Colin are in the Job Club, Hewell Grange's most innovative experiment. They go daily to jobs outside the prison, doing everything from truck driving to sales jobs to farm work like Colin.

Forty-five inmates have gone through the Job Club since it started a year ago. There's been one failure, a man who didn't return from work one night because he was worried about his family.

Some administrators at the Grange concede they feel pressure from within the government to tighten up its treatment of prisoners.

But the grange makes a profit from its farm, and Mr. Bamber says his Job Club men "start to pay their way as soon as they go on the scheme [program]."

Those are strong arguments for a government committed to free-market principles and experimenting with privatization of prisons.

And, as Colin shuffles through sheep dung at the end of a day that begins before 6 a.m. and lasts until about 5 p.m., he doesn't think he's got it soft.

"You still have the restrictions of prison," he says. "Your liberty is still restricted. When I leave here at night, I don't go home."

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