Porridge that leaves a sour taste

Prisongate
May 21, 2004

In 1993, Sir David Ramsbotham retired from a distinguished career in the Army. In 1995 he was invited by the Home Office to be Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, succeeding Sir Stephen Tumin. If the Home Office thought he would be more malleable, it was quickly and rudely disabused. What Ramsbotham and his inspectors found on his initial visit to Holloway prison, which is the subject of his first chapter, filled them with horror and disbelief. He was appalled at the filth, at the poor quality of management, at the presence of a large number of mentally disordered people and at the shortage of staff. He was highly critical of the lack of organisation and management structure. When he asked to see the director for women at the Home Office, he was told that the post did not exist and that no one on the Prisons Board had worked with women in prison.

He ends the chapter: "The memory of those days will be with me for ever.

More immediately they set my agenda for the next five years."

This included numerous and meticulous inspections and constant reports to the Prison Service. What he found most frustrating was the near-total apathy among civil servants and ministers of both political persuasions. To find, on his second visit, that recommendations made after one visit had been entirely ignored caused him great concern. Any suggestion of liberalisation of the regime often fell foul of the hostility of the Prison Officers Association executives and sometimes prison managers.

A chapter is devoted to events at HMP Blantyre House that are a supreme example of the canker at the heart of the Prison Service. In 2000, this category C prison had an unrivalled reputation under Eoin Maclennan Murray, its governor. It had a liberal ethos and was treated as a resettlement prison. Its reoffending rate was about 8 per cent, compared with more than 50 per cent in the adult prison population. The nature of the regime was not to the liking of Tom Murtagh, the area manager, who sought to introduce practices more appropriate to a closed prison, and failed to deal with requests for increased staffing. Such was his behaviour that the board of visitors wrote to the director-general to complain that the area manager was making life impossible for the governor. Even recent commendations of Blantyre's excellence by Ramsbotham and by a select committee could not prevent Murtagh from taking steps to remove the governor. On Tuesday May 2, Murtagh put 84 police officers in riot gear on standby to search Blantyre on the the following Friday night. But a search could be authorised only by the governor. On the Friday morning, Murtagh arrived at Blantyre, abruptly removed Maclennan Murray and told him that he was to leave the prison and hand over to a new governor immediately. The new governor then went through the charade of "authorising" the pre-planned search. Little of significance was found. The effect on the prison was disastrous.

More important, in Ramsbotham's view, was the failure of Paul Boateng, the prisons minister, or of Martin Narey, director-general of the Prison Service, or indeed of Jack Straw, the home secretary, to investigate properly what had happened or to accept that a ghastly mistake had been made. Instead, there was an attempt to cover up. The select committee's report said: "There are some doubts about the quality of the Prison Service's internal reports" and "there have been strong doubts about the accuracy of its statements to the public, press, board of visitors and Parliament."

The reports of the many visits to other prisons will be of limited interest to the general reader. But here and there a nugget is to be found. At the young offenders' institute at Aylesbury, a trial was conducted with more than 400 young offenders on the effect of nutrition on antisocial behaviour. Some were given vitamins, others a placebo. There was a 37 per cent reduction in serious offences, such as violence, in those taking the supplement. Neither the Home Office nor the Prison Service took any steps to put the knowledge into practice.

Apart from his criticisms, the author makes some thoughtful recommendations. These include the National Health Service taking responsibility for prison healthcare, one individual being responsible for women in prison and another being responsible for prisoners between the ages of 15 and 21. He has ideas for coping with the unacceptable level of suicides in prison and how to reduce reoffending. He praises the enlightened governors who struggled, in the face of hostility from the POA and without support from some prison managers, but still managed to run a well-disciplined, but humane, regime.

The desire of the Home Office to be shot of this turbulent character was clearly illustrated by the tawdry way in which Sir David's appointment was terminated. His contract as chief inspector was "for five years in the first instance, extendable to up to eight years by mutual agreement". He was simply phoned by Straw one morning and told that there was going to be an announcement in the House that afternoon that Ramsbotham would be retiring in July and that his post would be advertised. Of mutual agreement, there was no mention.

This is a hard-hitting and thought-provoking book that every intelligent member of the public ought to read, not only because the size and condition of the prison population are matters of serious concern to us all but also because of the frightening insight it gives into the apathy and indifference of Home Office ministers and their officials.

Sir Oliver Popplewell is a retired High Court judge and the author of Benchmark .

Prisongate: The Shocking State of Britain's Prisons and the Need for Visionary Change

Author - David Ramsbotham
Publisher - Free Press
Pages - 267
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7432 3884 2

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