Prisons, Brutality and Decency. Reflections on thirty years.
Prisons, Brutality and DecencyReflections on thirty yearsI want to reflect about threethings, which, it seems to me, havebeen of particular significance during the thirty years since I joinedthe Prison Service in 1982 as a naïve but idealistic traineegovernor. 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 ServiceI joined the Prison Service pretty much by accident. It was neversomething I planned (and when recruiting people to join later inmy career I was always troubled by any young person who toldme that working in Prisons was something they had alwayswanted 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 inhospital management. In 1981 I was managing a small group ofhospitals in Lincolnshire and my wife and I had our first child.During that period of life when, as anxious parents, we did not goout very much, I became hooked on what was then agroundbreaking BBC documentary, Strangeways, made by theinspirational film maker, Rex Bloomstein. It was a remarkablycandid expose of the not simply unsatisfactory, but primitive andcruel Jail in Manchester. I watched all eight episodes andsomewhere in my loft, on videotapes I can no longer play, I haveall the episodes still.
The horror of the prison as portrayed by Bloomstein had aprofound effect on me. Then, one Sunday evening later that yearmy wife handed me a copy of the Sunday Times appointmentspages. The Home Office were inviting individuals interested intraining to become prison governors and inviting potentialcandidates to visit a prison. And that is why, on Christmas Eve1981, I visited Lincoln Prison. Lincoln, then, as now, was a localprison, a smaller version of Strangeways. And, as I soon found, itwas 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 thatafternoon were sewing mailbags. But what was more depressingwas the open contempt displayed by the prison officers to thosethey were incarcerating and the amusement of the DeputyGovernor when I asked him about rehabilitation. But I left therethat afternoon with the firmest conviction that I didn‟t want to doanything else with my working life and to the horror of friendsand NHS colleagues, I joined the Service in September 1982, justthirty years ago.When that day arrived I was nervous for two reasons. First of allbecause these were the days when the Home Office dealt prettybrusquely with new employees. I „d had to resign from the NHSwithout any knowledge of where I would be posted and as I leftour home in Nottinghamshire that morning to drive to the PrisonService College at Wakefield, I promised to ring my wife as soonas I knew where we might be living for the next few years. To mylater immense relief it was Barnard Castle, home to the thenDeerbolt Borstal, rather than London or the Isle of Wight.But the second reason for my anxiety was more profound.Sincemy resignation from the NHS some months before I had beenfollowing the news reports prompted by a late night adjournmentdebate in the House of Commons. The debate was concluded bythe then junior Home Office Minister, but soon to be distinguishedAttorney General, Paddy Mayhew.It was abouta man called BarryProsser. Mr Prosser had been remanded in August 1980 to HerMajestys Prison, Birmingham for medical reports, having been
charged with damage to a lock valued at £1.62. The Minister toldthe 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 hismurder. Twice – surprisingly - magistrates‟ in Birminghamdismissed the prosecution and refused to commit the case to theCrown Court. This forced the DPP to use unusual powers tobypass the magistrates and take the case direct to the CrownCourt.But all three Officers were acquitted. To this day, no one has beenconvicted for that brutal and cowardly murder. But the Commonswas assured that there was not too much to worry about. AsPaddy 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 thetime - the Ministertold the House that the Director General hadrequired all use of force by Prison Officers on prisoners in futureto be reported to the governor. The POA ordered the instruction tobe ignored.Mr Mayhew could not bring himself to say anythingstronger than that he regretted that.That was the Prison Service I joined. Violence was not endemic.But it was commonplace. And governors were taught to lookaway.Just four years previously, an amiable young man called
DouglasMcCombe was told to stay in his office by Officers at HullPrison who were intent on wreaking revenge on the prisoners whohad rioted at Hull a few days previously. Mr McCombe stayed inhis office as he was told and was prosecuted for malfeasance. TheCrown Court in Hull acquitted him, concluding that he wouldhave been unable to stop the violence, and had he tried to do so hewould have put himself in danger. A later Home Office report intothe gross violence meted out on prisoners described it simply as“an excess of zeal”My first postingI returned to Lincoln to begin my gubernatorial training and forfour months wore the uniform, and was, a prison officer. Lincolnwas, I would say, largely placid. Run, essentially by a singlemilitaristic Principal Officer, the governor was an irrelevance. Itwas a placid place because Prisoners expected nothing and gotnothing.They didn‟t protest, they did as they were told and their treatmentwas not visibly harsh (ignoring here issues around living three to acell, appalling food and slopping out). But although all the officersknew I was a governor in training they did not trouble themselvesby concealing poor behaviour and I saw visitors (and visitingprobation officers) treated with casual but gross disrespect and Isaw a patently mentally ill prisoner being slapped around in thesegregation unit.When, at the end of my 4 months as a Prison Officer,when Ireturned to the Prison Service College and - no doubt a touch selfrighteously - raised the violence and the disrespect with my tutorat the College and her seniors, I was laughed at.Later, at the end ofmy first year of training, we had a lecture about Barry Prosser‟sdeath, given by the duty governor at Birmingham on the night MrProsser was murdered (by now promoted to the role of staff tutorat the College). Mr Prosser‟s wife, described in Parliament as awoman of quiet courage, resolve, dedication and serenitywas called aSlag. I protested and overtures were made to me about whether I‟dmade the right career decision. I was, I was told variously, eitherunhelpful, 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 wasvery little violence there. But I was reminded of the extent towhich it was the norm in local prisons. After a minor disturbanceat Deerbolt, where I was the only governor on duty,about twentyyoung men had to be transferred to Durham. I was on duty untilafter midnight and saw each of those young men,treatedprofessionally, and put on coaches to Durham. When I visitedthem at Durham the next morning, each of them were black andblue. Violence in short, was part of the prison experience of the80s.After four years I went to Frankland, a new high securityprison.Prisoners were articulate, and many, frankly, untouchable,not least those with Irish terrorist connections.There was, as far asI could ascertain, very little violence. But a few months after myarrival, a new governor, Alistair Papps, called all four of hisassistant governors –of which I was the junior - together and madeit plain that heading off violence against prisoners was ourprimary 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 itwasn‟t good enough to regret its happening. That it couldn‟t beallowed to happen.That seems self-evident now. But to understand why a suggestionthat junior governors should ensure staff act professionally wassomewhat novel, one has to understand the reality that in the mideighties only the governing governor himself (they were virtuallyall men) could give an order to anyone in uniform – howeverjunior that officer.Assistant Governors, like me, looked after prisoners, getting toknow them, dealing with their problems and writing parolereports. One could, and some of us tried, to do a little more. Butour authority was entirely informal. In some areas we were notallowed to meddle. So, for example, one had to simply observe thescandalous over manning which fed the unquenchable prisonofficer thirst for overtime.
At Frankland, in 1986, no governor, including the Governinggovernor, could read or understand a shift detail. None of us knewhow many officers were employed on any task on any day or whatthey cost. There was, essentially, no management of staff ormoney. But by that time I already knew that the primarymanagerial challenge in prisons was not about finance, orplanning, or industrial relations. Prison management was – and is- chiefly about morality. But imposing any sort of moral leadin the80s was defied by the formal managerial arrangements whichmade people like me, and indeed most governors, including a fewthat were in charge,an irrelevance. It is hard to overestimate theimportance of the Fresh Start reforms in 1987 which abolishedChief Officers and introduced governors into the line managementof those in uniform.It was the beginning of what is sometimestermed, pejoratively, managerialism in the Prison Service. And, asfar as I was concerned, Thank God. Because that managerialismbegan to allow the proper management of staff and staffbehaviour, the establishment – at least in some places - of a moralauthority. 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 manygovernors, recruited as quasi-housemasters, were not up to thechallenge.Becoming Director GeneralI took over as DG from Sir Richard Tilt in 1998.I‟d spent aboutseven years out of the service, as a policy maker in the criminaljustice side of the Home Office before returning to Prisons. I joinedthe Prisons Board in 1997 and a year later Richard – to everyone‟sdismay – departed.I thought Prisons had become a lot better while I‟d been away. Ithought violence in particular had become all but invisible. But awise man called Peter Timms, once Governor of Pentonville but bynow 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 thesegregation unit at Wormwood Scrubs. They were allowed to doso because they had an arrangement whereby even the governinggovernor rang down to the segregation unit to give notice that heintended to visit.So, although violence had become more discreetit was still there. And it‟s still there now. Prisons and other totalinstitutions have an extraordinary capacity to degenerate and toabuse those powerless enough to resist.DecencyBut violence was, at least, on the retreat. There was no immediatemoral conversion. Some staff stopped abuse because they fearedfor their jobs. And they were right to do so, two of them a weekwere being sacked as I told Governors not to worry about losingemployment tribunals. It was worth a pay out of £20 or £30thousand to rid ourselves of people who physically abusedprisoners.I like to think that the emphasis I gave to decency accelerated theretreat of violence.The decency agenda liberated good staff to actas decent men. And the arrival of female staff into male prisonscertainly helped, as did closing Prison Officers Clubs at lunchtimeand making plain that drinking three or four pints before anafternoon shift was no longer acceptable.Certainly, and significantly, I think decency took some of the angerout of prisons and, as a result riots and disturbances became lesscommon, prisons became easier to manage and to work in. I spendvery little time looking at or visiting prisons these days. Butsometimes, when I meet someone from the service, they will saysomething about my decency agenda and I like to think it made adifference. But I know, and Michael Spurr - as decent a man as youcould wish to be in charge of prisons – knows that the war is neverwon and the capacity of prisons to degenerate can never beignored.Show me a governor who believes that there is nophysical abuse in his or her prison, and I‟ll show you someone notup 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. Ialways believed that decent prisons could provide the frameworkon which we could make imprisonment rehabilitative.In 1997, inhis last year as DG, Richard Tilt asked me to prepare the spendingbid 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 andoffending behaviour programmes in the same proportion ofprisons. The bill to achieve that was huge. Richard sent me backand told me to ask for more and, in the end, we put forward a sillybid.We asked for a mountain of money and we got it all. Probation didwell too: almost doubling its budget in real terms in the first fiveyears or so of the Labour Government.It was a time of optimism.The Youth Justice Board began to function and we began to treatchildren in the CJS as children. Probation dedicated itself to doingthings with offenders that really worked.And as I visited prisons,governors were as keen to take me to the education centre as theyhad once been to show me the Segregation Unit.In the first few years of my tenure as DG, the prison populationgrew 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 afterrelease leapt forward by about 10% in two years.The Departmentof Health took over healthcare and immediately began crankingup the quality of both medical and nursing staff. The Departmentfor Education took over education, and basic skills becameembedded in every prison. I really thought we were gong tochange the penal landscape.And then the population began to surge.By the time thepopulation crisis emerged, Jack Straw had become ForeignSecretary and David Blunkett, with whom I had a mostly
unsatisfactory relationship, had arrived.By then, in about 2003, Iwas managing both prisons and probation and – although veryfew probation officers would believe this – my priority was toprotect probation expenditure (not least because Rod Morgan, asChief Inspector of Probation, had opened my eyes to Probation‟svery own overcrowding problem as numbers under supervisionsoared).But seeking to satisfy what I once described to Tony Blair as theUK‟s love affair with custody inevitably vacuumed up everypenny we had. I knew that unless we could manage demand forprison places that making prison and probation work moreeffectively was all but impossible. And I certainly knew thatwithout control on demand the concept of NOMS was doomed.It‟s worth pausing to remind oneself of the way the populationsurged. It rose from 49,000 in 1995, to 65,000 in 1998 and thenstayed at about 65,000 for three years before surging to 76,000 by2004.Although I didn‟t get on too well with David Blunkett, no onecould deny that he was a Minister of some courage. I did get invery well with an inspirational man called Harry Woolf, the thenLord Chief Justice and I sought to make peace between them. I gotto my office every morning by seven and in time to speak towhichever Press Officer had read the morning‟s headlines to theHome Secretary. That meant I was able to persuade him fromfiring off some objectionable comment about a particularjudgement or sentence based on what the Daily Star or The Sunhad to say about it.Finally, and very courageously, David agreed with the Lord Chiefto cap the size of the prison population at 80,000 and theSentencing Guidelines Council, of which I was a foundingmember, agreed to issue guidelines which would not exceed agiven budget for prison places in any one year. In anticipation ofthe legislation – and without it causing very much difficulty - I hadthe novel experience of taking every draft sentencing guidelineback to HO statisticians and, if a population rise was predicted, theSentencing 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 limitedthe growth of the prison population to an annual figure to beagreed each year between the Home Office and the Lord ChiefJustice.Then DavidBlunkett fast tracked a visa application for hisNanny. It was the sort of gentle nudge to due process which was,in my experience, commonplace in the Home Office. Ministers andsenior officials would get a decision on an immigration issue alittle 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 immediatelyunimpressed with a plan to limit the prison population, thinkingthis was not the sort of initiative which would propel him toNumber 10 where a number of people, not least Charles himself,thought he was bound.NOMs, certainly the NOMS envisaged byits creator, Pat Carterand passionately believed in by me wasdoomed and I resigned a few weeks later.ConclusionSo what, if any conclusion can I draw from these threereminiscences? 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 whichhas to be managed every day.Secondly that decency, I think, made a difference and continues tomake a difference. It filled a moral vacuum and liberated goodstaff 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 afoundation on which prisoners in large numbers could changetheir lives.Thirdly, the decency agenda grew alongside a necessary andoverdue more critical scrutiny of prisons. When Barry Prosser wasmurdered – by prison officers – there was no enquiry. No one was
sacked. Twenty years later, when Zahid Mubarek was murderedby another prisoner, there were two public enquiries and, quiterightly I was in the dock for both of them.Fourthly, and finally, the capacity of prisons to be effective inreducing offending depends on high quality and properlyresourced supervision and credible community alternatives toprison.That vital requirement is frustrated by prisons‟ vastcapacity to consume resources.The answer has to be a quenchingof the insatiable demands on custody. But for the time being a rarewindow of opportunity has been slammed shut. But one day, weshall have a Prime Minister brave enough to argue that, in asociety which necessarily has to ration spending on health,education and defence, we must ration spending on prisons and indoing so we might do a better job of protecting the public.