Britain's jails are plagued by a culture of racism among a hard core of officers and have been rocked by allegations that black prisoners have been made to fight white inmates for the amusement of warders, according to the union chief in charge of 33,500 officers.

As police launched an investigation into the allegations, Colin Moses, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), warned last night that the Prison Service was on the brink of a crisis similar to that faced by the police over the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

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