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Saturday, November 06, 2010

‘Jails are not just dustbins, but the inmates are treated as rubbish’

‘Jails are not just dustbins, but the inmates are treated as rubbish’

Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson The Times (£)
November 6 2010 12:01AM

Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons
Photo: Paul Rogers for The Times

Nick Hardwick has spent four months visiting jails. At each, he has been given a set of keys and allowed to tour the wings alone, letting himself into cells to talk to inmates. And the new Chief Inspector of Prisons has been horrified by what he has seen.

“In every prison you see bits that seem hellish,” he says. “There are filthy conditions, two people sharing a very small cell — something not much bigger than my toilet at home. You get graffiti, you get dirt. What I certainly haven’t seen is anywhere that’s a holiday camp.”

As head of the Independent Police Complaints Commission for six years, and before that chief executive of Centrepoint (when he frequently took Diana, Princess of Wales, to meet the homeless), he had occasionally visited individual inmates before. He also worked for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders in the 1980s.

But until he became the prisons watchdog in July he had never spent any length of time in a jail. He is clearly still reeling from what he has found as he has gone round almost one institution a week.

“The problem is not that the prisons are dustbins; it’s that the people are treated as rubbish,” he says. “You look at the conditions some people are in and what’s happening to them and the lack of care they are getting and you think, this is just a disgrace.”

It’s not just that the physical environment is appalling. “What I hadn’t quite understood is the impact of having all your personal autonomy taken away from you. There was one prison, for example, where the laundry was chaotic. When you sent off your prison issue clothes, what you got back wasn’t what you sent so all the prisoners were in clothes that were either too small or too big. You are a grown man and your clothes make you look ridiculous. Whether that’s cruel or not is a matter of definition but it’s certainly an unnecessary humiliation.”

Too often, he says, the prison officers turn a blind eye to bullying.

“We were in a well-run prison. Most people said it was reasonably safe — but it was clear that there was a small minority of vulnerable prisoners being very badly bullied. They were being beaten up. If a prisoner went into a cell and the person who had been there before owed money, they inherited their debt. They would have to pay up or get assaulted. If you were big, fit and sparky you were all right; if you were small with learning difficulties you had a horrible time.”

Mr Hardwick has been shocked by the level of drug use. “We were in a prison the other day in which 17 per cent of prisoners said in our survey they had developed a drug problem while they were in the prison. That’s a bit worse than normal but in the Prison Service no one falls off their chair at that, whereas I think that is a staggering figure.”

The drug treatment programmes are inadequate, in his view. “Ministers talk about having drug-free wings. That’s fine but little islands of sanity in the madhouse won’t do.”

This week it was announced that 61 per cent of prisoners were reoffending once they were released. The Chief Inspector thinks that there is far too little emphasis on rehabilitation. “You need to keep prisons safe and secure but that’s not an end in itself. When people leave prison they ought to be less likely to offend than when they come in. That seems to me to be an unobjectionable aim to have, but lots of them don’t have that aim.”

Prisoners have too little to do. “Even if they are in something called the workshop, there’s a lot of sitting around playing cards. Prisons should be places of purposeful activity. Work is good for people. The day should bear some relation to the kind of day they would have.” Meal times are “bizarre”, he says. “You have lunch at 11.30 and tea at 3.30, then you get a pack for your breakfast. Prisons should be trying to establish a normal routine.”

There should, in his view, be carrots as well as sticks. “I visited one young offenders’ institution where there was a boy who would lose his temper and get violent. They were getting him to do art work and the tutor was then also engaging him about his behaviour. The art was a medium to do that, it wasn’t a soft touch. For him it was a first step.” Nor does he see anything wrong with prison parties. “Prisoners need incentives. Good order and discipline is not simply a matter of rules, it’s also about creating a relationship between the prisoners and the staff.”

It makes sense, he thinks, to give some prisoners voting rights. “If you totally exclude people and say they are beyond the pale in a blanket way, that’s probably destructive.” The bigger question is whether the right people are in jail. Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, is sensible, Mr Hardwick believes, to ask whether the prison population is too high. “There are too many people for the prisons to cope with effectively. Last time I was working with young offenders, in the 1980s, people were worried that the prison population was reaching the terrible heights of 40,000. It’s now 85,000. Do we all feel safer?”

It is, he thinks, too simplistic to say that prison works. “Prison works in the sense that when people are there they can’t offend and it works because people are being punished, but the criminal justice system could work a lot better to prevent crime.”

He is worried about the implications of 30 per cent cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget. “Even if they get the numbers down, they are going to struggle to get the numbers down at the same rate as the money reduces. So you will have less money per prisoner. If the consequences of that are that you have prisoners banged up in their cells for longer, that education can only be provided for a smaller proportion of the prison population, then that is not going to help people stop offending.”

When Mr Hardwick took up his position, his family and friends all asked him if he was frightened going round prisons talking to murderers and rapists. His answer surprised them. “It’s not scary at all. I’m not saying there aren’t very difficult people in there, but it doesn’t feel when you go around that the prison is stuffed to the gunnels with people who are a violent threat, people who need to be locked away to protect the public.”

Most people’s perception of prisoners is nothing like the reality, he insists. “It is said that the people in prison are the mad, the bad and the sad. The balance between those groups seems to me to be a surprise.”

Seventeen per cent of prisoners have been treated for a mental illness or emotional problem in the year before their incarceration. “There is a category of people who are just poor copers. If you have these very vulnerable people in there, people whose primary issue is their learning difficulties or their mental health, then you need to make proper provision for them.”

In his view, that does not happen enough. He met one young man who had severe learning difficulties. “He was 18 or 19 but he came across as quite childlike. He was in a prison a long way from his home, the accommodation service was in disarray and he was worried about where he was going to live when he left. He thought the answer was that if he behaved badly he would get put in a segregation unit, then he would see a governor who would sort it out. But he was too inarticulate to explain what the problem was. You could see it going from bad to worse.”

The jails have, he believes, become a dumping ground for the victims of a failed mental health policy. “They shut the asylums down and all these people were just tipped out and there was no care in the community and a lot of them got shifted off to prison. Is prison the right place for these people, particularly some of the women? Certainly not.” His visits to women’s prisons have been the most traumatic. “There are lots of terribly sad things. I’ve seen women who are in a desperate position. They are self-harming on a regular basis, they are clearly very unstable and you say: ‘What is this person doing here?’”

Many of the female prisoners he has met are mothers who have been separated from their children. “I hadn’t really understood how different the women are from the men. The degree to which women are cutting themselves is just really disturbing. That tells you something. It’s more obviously apparent in a women’s prison that any crime they have committed is a symptom rather than a cause. Prison clearly isn’t the place to put these very disturbed, very vulnerable people.”

Mr Hardwick knows that such views will be controversial. The Justice Secretary has already provoked the fury of the Conservative Right with his call for a rethink on prisons policy. But the Chief Inspector says that a country’s attitude to its jail population is a test of its character.

“You have to start from a moral or ethical position,” he says. “Even someone who is in prison for a very serious offence and isn’t going to come out should still be safe. They should still be held in decent conditions — not because there is some economic benefit or social case for doing so, but because we are a civilised country. There is a moral imperative to treat people well. Some individuals do terrible things but I don’t believe anybody is beyond redemption. People in prison don’t stop being human.”

Curriculum vitae

Name Nick Hardwick

Age 53

Family Married to Susan Heaven. Two children, Sophie and Jack

Education Epsom College (private); English degree from Hull Career Chief executive of the Centrepoint charity 1986 to 1995 (accompanied Diana, Princess of Wales, on visits to the homeless). Chief executive of Refugee Council, 1995 to 2003. The first chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, 2003-10. Became Chief Inspector of Prisons in July

Quick fire quiz

The Wire or Porridge? The Wire

Oliver Twist or Little Lord Fauntleroy? Oliver Twist

Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer? Jonathan Aitken

Water or wine? Water

Banksy or Botticelli? Botticelli

The Great Escape or The Shawshank Redemption? The Shawshank Redemption

Baked beans or caviar? Baked beans

1 comment:

Charles Cowling said...

I like this man so far.