I want to reflect about three things, which, it seems to me, have been of particular significance during the thirty years since I joined the Prison Service in 1982 as a naïve but idealistic trainee governor. They are: The violence in the prison service I joined; The emergence of management in the service; and The lost opportunity of population control and the heavy penalty paid for that today by prisons, probation and youth justice. My Joining the Prison Service I joined the Prison Service pretty much by accident. It was never something I planned (and when recruiting people to join later in my career I was always troubled by any young person who told me that working in Prisons was something they had always wanted to do).
After graduating in the late seventies I went to work in the NHS –something I had planned to do – and spent five happy years in hospital management. In 1981 I was managing a small group of hospitals in Lincolnshire and my wife and I had our first child. During that period of life when, as anxious parents, we did not go out very much, I became hooked on what was then a ground breaking BBC documentary, Strangeways, made by the inspirational film maker, Rex Bloomstein. It was a remarkably candid expose of the not simply unsatisfactory, but primitive and cruel Jail in Manchester.
I watched all eight episodes and somewhere in my loft, on videotapes I can no longer play, I have all the episodes still. The horror of the prison as portrayed by Bloomstein had a profound effect on me. Then, one Sunday evening later that year my wife handed me a copy of the Sunday Times appointments pages. The Home Office were inviting individuals interested in training to become prison governors and inviting potential candidates to visit a prison. And that is why, on Christmas Eve 1981, I visited Lincoln Prison.
Lincoln, then, as now, was a local prison, a smaller version of Strangeways. And, as I soon found, it was very like the Strangeways portrayed by the BBC. It was dirty.It smelled, overpoweringly, of human waste and in every cell Iwas allowed to look there were three men in a space made by theVictorians for one. The only prisoners out of their cell that afternoon were sewing mailbags. But what was more depressing was the open contempt displayed by the prison officers to those they were incarcerating and the amusement of the Deputy Governor when I asked him about rehabilitation. But I left there that afternoon with the firmest conviction that I didnt want to do anything else with my working life and to the horror of friends and NHS colleagues, I joined the Service in September 1982, just thirty years ago.
When that day arrived, I was nervous for two reasons. First of all because these were the days when the Home Office dealt pretty brusquely with new employees. I`d had to resign from the NHS without any knowledge of where I would be posted and as I left our home in Nottinghamshire that morning to drive to the Prison Service College at Wakefield, I promised to ring my wife as soon as I knew where we might be living for the next few years. To my later immense relief it was Barnard Castle, home to the then Deerbolt Borstal, rather than London or the Isle of Wight.
But the second reason for my anxiety was more profound. Since my resignation from the NHS some months before I had been following the news reports prompted by a late night adjournment debate in the House of Commons. The debate was concluded by the then junior Home Office Minister, but soon to be distinguished Attorney General, Paddy Mayhew. It was about a man called Barry Prosser. Mr Prosser had been remanded in August 1980 to Her Majestys Prison, Birmingham for medical reports, having been charged with damage to a lock valued at £1.62. The Minister told the House of Commons what happened next: Mr. Prosser was found dead in his cell in the hospital wing of Birmingham Prison in the early morning of 19 August 1980. He had been on remand in the prison for just over two weeks, and for the past week he had been in the hospital wing, because his behaviour had become disturbed. At the time he died, arrangements were being made for his admission to a psychiatric hospital. The post mortem revealed that Mr. Prosser had extensive bruising all over his body. His stomach, his oesophagus and one of his lungs had been ruptured.
“Prison Officers murdered Mr Prosser. Three were charged with his murder. Twice – surprisingly – magistrates” in Birmingham dismissed the prosecution and refused to commit the case to the Crown Court. This forced the DPP to use unusual powers to bypass the magistrates and take the case direct to the Crown Court. But all three Officers were acquitted.
To this day, no one has been convicted for that brutal and cowardly murder. But the Commons was assured that there was not too much to worry about. As Paddy Mayhew told them: We know of absolutely no evidence that this was other than an isolated incident. The Government is satisfied that it was not part of a pattern of maltreatment of prisoners.
Very tellingly –reflecting as it did the power of the POA at the time – the Minister told the House that the Director General had required all use of force by Prison Officers on prisoners in future to be reported to the governor. The POA ordered the instruction to be ignored. Mr Mayhew could not bring himself to say anything stronger than that he regretted that.
That was the Prison Service I joined. Violence was not endemic. But it was common place. And governors were taught to look away. Just four years previously, an amiable young man called Douglas McCombe was told to stay in his office by Officers at Hull Prison who were intent on wreaking revenge on the prisoners who had rioted at Hull a few days previously. Mr McCombe stayed in his office as he was told and was prosecuted for malfeasance. The Crown Court in Hull acquitted him, concluding that he would have been unable to stop the violence, and had he tried to do so he would have put himself in danger. A later Home Office report into the gross violence meted out on prisoners described it simply as “an excess of zeal” .
My first posting I returned to Lincoln to begin my gubernatorial training and for four months wore the uniform, and was, a prison officer. Lincoln was, I would say, largely placid. Run, essentially by a single militaristic Principal Officer, the governor was an irrelevance. It was a placid place because Prisoners expected nothing and got nothing. They didn`t protest, they did as they were told and their treatment was not visibly harsh (ignoring here issues around living three to a cell, appalling food and slopping out). But although all the officers knew I was a governor in training they did not trouble themselves by concealing poor behaviour and I saw visitors (and visiting probation officers) treated with casual but gross disrespect and Isaw a patently mentally ill prisoner being slapped around in these gregation unit.
When, at the end of my 4 months as a Prison Officer, when I returned to the Prison Service College and – no doubt a touch self righteously – raised the violence and the disrespect with my tutor at the College and her seniors, I was laughed at. Later, at the end of my first year of training, we had a lecture about Barry Prosser`s death, given by the duty governor at Birmingham on the night Mr Prosser was murdered (by now promoted to the role of staff tutor at the College). Mr Prosser’s wife, described in Parliament as awoman of quiet courage, resolve, dedication and serenity was called a Slag. I protested and overtures were made to me about whether I’d made the right career decision. I was, I was told variously, either unhelpful, uncooperative or, most frequently, naïve.
I moved from Lincoln to Deerbolt Borstal at the beginning of 1983. I saw very little violence at Deerbolt. I think there genuinely was very little violence there. But I was reminded of the extent to which it was the norm in local prisons. After a minor disturbance at Deerbolt, where I was the only governor on duty, about twenty young men had to be transferred to Durham. I was on duty until after midnight and saw each of those young men, treated professionally, and put on coaches to Durham. When I visited them at Durham the next morning, each of them were black and blue. Violence in short, was part of the prison experience of the 80′s.
After four years I went to Frankland, a new high security prison. Prisoners were articulate, and many, frankly, untouchable, not least those with Irish terrorist connections. There was, as far as I could as certain, very little violence. But a few months after my arrival, a new governor, Alistair Papps, called all four of his assistant governors –of which I was the junior – together and made it plain that heading off violence against prisoners was our primary responsibility. And if it happened when we were on duty, he would want to know why. It was the first acknowledgementfrom any governor that violence had to be prevented. That it wasn’t good enough to regret its happening. That it couldn’t be allowed to happen. That seems self-evident now. But to understand why a suggestion that junior governors should ensure staff act professionally was somewhat novel, one has to understand the reality that in the mid eighties only the governing governor himself (they were virtually all men) could give an order to anyone in uniform – however junior that officer.
Assistant Governors, like me, looked after prisoners, getting to know them, dealing with their problems and writing parole reports. One could, and some of us tried, to do a little more. But our authority was entirely informal. In some areas we were not allowed to meddle. So, for example, one had to simply observe the scandalous over manning which fed the unquenchable prison officer thirst for overtime.
At Frankland, in 1986, no governor, including the Governinggovernor, could read or understand a shift detail. None of us knew how many officers were employed on any task on any day or whatthey cost. There was, essentially, no management of staff or money. But by that time I already knew that the primary managerial challenge in prisons was not about finance, or planning, or industrial relations. Prison management was – and is- chiefly about morality. But imposing any sort of moral leadin the 80′s was defied by the formal managerial arrangements which made people like me, and indeed most governors, including a few that were in charge, an irrelevance.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Fresh Start reforms in 1987 which abolished Chief Officers and introduced governors into the line management of those in uniform. It was the beginning of what is sometimes termed, pejoratively, managerialism in the Prison Service. And, as far as I was concerned, Thank God. Because that managerialism began to allow the proper management of staff and staff behaviour, the establishment – at least in some places – of a moral authority. Violence – while certainly not disappearing and in someplaces all too present– retreated to the dark corners of prisons. Staff began to understand that if caught they might be in trouble. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took some years and too many governors, recruited as quasi-housemasters, were not up to the challenge.
Becoming Director General I took over as DG from Sir Richard Tilt in 1998. I’d spent about seven years out of the service, as a policy maker in the criminal justice side of the Home Office before returning to Prisons. I joined the Prisons Board in 1997 and a year later Richard – to everyone’s dismay – departed. I thought Prisons had become a lot better while I’d been away. I thought violence in particular had become all but invisible. But a wise man called Peter Timms, once Governor of Penton ville but by now a Methodist Minister, urged me to be more sceptical. I was right to listen to Peter.
Just 4 weeks after my appointment Isuspended more than 20 officers who had abused prisoners in these gregation unit at Wormwood Scrubs. They were allowed to do so because they had an arrangement whereby even the governing governor rang down to the segregation unit to give notice that he intended to visit. So, although violence had become more discreet it was still there. And it’s still there now. Prisons and other total institutions have an extraordinary capacity to degenerate and to abuse those powerless enough to resist. Decency But violence was, at least, on the retreat. There was no immediatemoral conversion. Some staff stopped abuse because they feared for their jobs. And they were right to do so, two of them a week were being sacked as I told Governors not to worry about losing employment tribunals. It was worth a pay out of £20 or £30 thousand to rid ourselves of people who physically abused prisoners. I like to think that the emphasis I gave to decency accelerated there treat of violence. The decency agenda liberated good staff to act as decent men. And the arrival of female staff into male prisons certainly helped, as did closing Prison Officers Clubs at lunchtime and making plain that drinking three or four pints before an afternoon shift was no longer acceptable. Certainly, and significantly, I think decency took some of the anger out of prisons and, as a result riots and disturbances became less common, prisons became easier to manage and to work in.
I spendvery little time looking at or visiting prisons these days. But sometimes, when I meet someone from the service, they will say something about my decency agenda and I like to think it made a difference. But I know, and Michael Spurr – as decent a man as you could wish to be in charge of prisons – knows that the war is never won and the capacity of prisons to degenerate can never beign or end. Show me a governor who believes that there is no physical abuse in his or her prison, and I’ll show you someone not up to the job. The lost opportunity of population control. Treating prisoners decently, reducing physical (and then racial) abuse along with reducing suicides were my first priorities as DG. But they were not ends in themselves. As vital as they were. I always believed that decent prisons could provide the frame work on which we could make imprisonment rehabilitative.
In 1997, in his last year as DG, Richard Tilt asked me to prepare the spending bid for the new Labour Home Secretary. I was pretty extravagant, suggesting, for example, that we could move from drug treatmentin just four prisons to treatment in half of prisons in three years. And that we could begin to introduce basic education and offending behaviour programmes in the same proportion of prisons. The bill to achieve that was huge. Richard sent me back and told me to ask for more and, in the end, we put forward a silly bid. We asked for a mountain of money and we got it all. Probation did well too: almost doubling its budget in real terms in the first five years or so of the Labour Government.
It was a time of optimism. The Youth Justice Board began to function and we began to treat children in the CJS as children. Probation dedicated itself to doing things with offenders that really worked. And as I visited prisons, governors were as keen to take me to the education centre as they had once been to show me the Segregation Unit. In the first few years of my tenure as DG, the prison population grew slowly, and rehabilitative activity grew enormously. Evidence began to emerge of us beginning to make an impact. Crucially, the proportion of prisoners going into employment after release leapt forward by about 10% in two years. The Department of Health took over healthcare and immediately began cranking up the quality of both medical and nursing staff. The Department for Education took over education, and basic skills became embedded in every prison. I really thought we were gong to change the penal landscape.
And then the population began to surge. By the time the population crisis emerged, Jack Straw had become Foreign Secretary and David Blunkett, with whom I had a mostly unsatisfactory relationship, had arrived. By then, in about 2003, I was managing both prisons and probation and – although very few probation officers would believe this – my priority was to protect probation expenditure (not least because Rod Morgan, as Chief Inspector of Probation, had opened my eyes to Probation’s very own overcrowding problem as numbers under supervision soared). But seeking to satisfy what I once described to Tony Blair as the UK’s love affair with custody inevitably vacuumed up every penny we had. I knew that unless we could manage demand for prison places that making prison and probation work more effectively was all but impossible. And I certainly knew that without control on demand the concept of NOMS was doomed. It’s worth pausing to remind oneself of the way the population surged. It rose from 49,000 in 1995, to 65,000 in 1998 and then stayed at about 65,000 for three years before surging to 76,000 by 2004.
Although I didn’t get on too well with David Blunkett, no one could deny that he was a Minister of some courage. I did get in very well with an inspirational man called Harry Woolf, the then Lord Chief Justice and I sought to make peace between them. I got to my office every morning by seven and in time to speak towhichever Press Officer had read the morning’s headlines to the Home Secretary. That meant I was able to persuade him from firing off some objectionable comment about a particular judgement or sentence based on what the Daily Star or The Sun had to say about it.
Finally, and very courageously, David agreed with the Lord Chief to cap the size of the prison population at 80,000 and the Sentencing Guidelines Council, of which I was a founding member, agreed to issue guidelines which would not exceed a given budget for prison places in any one year. In anticipation of the legislation – and without it causing very much difficulty – I had the novel experience of taking every draft sentencing guideline back to HO statisticians and, if a population rise was predicted, the Sentencing Council adjusted it.
The Bill was drafted. Somewhere on a dusty shelf in the Ministryof Justice there will be a copy or two with the clause which limited the growth of the prison population to an annual figure to be agreed each year between the Home Office and the Lord Chief Justice.
Then David Blunkett fast tracked a visa application for his Nanny. It was the sort of gentle nudge to due process which was, in my experience, common place in the Home Office. Ministers and senior officials would get a decision on an immigration issue a little quicker or a passport renewed a little faster. Wrong perhaps,but not remotely a resigning matter for a Home Secretary who, atthe time, commanded unprecedented levels of public confidence. But resign he did. Charles Clarke arrived and was immediately unimpressed with a plan to limit the prison population, thinking this was not the sort of initiative which would propel him to Number 10 where a number of people, not least Charles himself, thought he was bound. NOMs, certainly the NOMS envisaged by its creator, Pat Carterand passionately believed in by me was doomed and I resigned a few weeks later. Conclusion So what, if any conclusion can I draw from these three reminiscences? Let me try four.
First, the default option for prisons is abuse. Ignore violence, believe it doesn’t happen, and it will flourish. It’s something which has to be managed every day.
Secondly that decency, I think, made a difference and continues to make a difference. It filled a moral vacuum and liberated good staff and good governors to treat prisoners with greater dignity. And decency took much of the bristling anger out of prisons and, Ihope, although I was prevented from proving it, provided a foundation on which prisoners in large numbers could change their lives.
Thirdly, the decency agenda grew alongside a necessary and overdue more critical scrutiny of prisons. When Barry Prosser was murdered – by prison officers – there was no enquiry. No one was sacked. Twenty years later, when Zahid Mubarek was murdered by another prisoner, there were two public enquiries and, quite rightly I was in the dock for both of them.
Fourthly, and finally, the capacity of prisons to be effective in reducing offending depends on high quality and properly resourced supervision and credible community alternatives to prison. That vital requirement is frustrated by prisons’ vast capacity to consume resources. The answer has to be a quenching of the insatiable demands on custody. But for the time being a rare window of opportunity has been slammed shut. But one day, we shall have a Prime Minister brave enough to argue that, in a society which necessarily has to ration spending on health, education and defence, we must ration spending on prisons and in doing so we might do a better job of protecting the public.