Leading Article: Three cheers for our radical Chief Inspector of Prisons

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS a good time to celebrate Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons. At a time when cronyism seems to have seeped into every pore of our body politic, to encounter such an independently minded figure in such a sensitive position is refreshing. Appointed by a Tory minister, Michael Howard, in 1995, he has defied successive political masters and put before anything his own duty to promote a humane and productive regime in our country's prisons. He deserves every support.

His latest intervention, reported in The Independent today, is to claim that one in five of our jails is degenerating into conditions approaching those found in Wormwood Scrubs, which, since Sir David's damning report, has become a byword for the very worst practices in the penal system. Problems are acute in the so-called "local jails", institutions built in the last century and sited mostly in the middle of older urban centres, where high-risk-category prisoners are mixed with local offenders, perhaps on remand for minor offences. These institutions suffer from their age and the "negative culture" that prevails in them, whereby staff place too much emphasis on punishment and too little on rehabilitation and treat prisoners as "subordinates". Nor is this Sir David's only important concern. He has also drawn attention to the conditions in women's prisons, such as London's Holloway, and in young offenders' institutions, and to the incidence of drug-taking and rising suicide rates.

It is a formidable agenda, and one that is necessarily mostly hidden from the public gaze. It raises questions that ministers often find inconvenient to tackle. Compared with the NHS, there is little political capital to be made from prisons. Thus the need for Sir David to remain outspoken. Funding will always be a problem for prisons. But Sir David also has other obstacles to progress that are, if anything, even more stubborn.

The Prison Officers Association (POA) has proved itself to be a formidable trade union. It is, though, serving its members poorly when it so blindly defends "its own". Sir David and his inspectors have uncovered behaviour by prison officers that is inexcusable. British prisons cannot be reduced to the status of private playgrounds for the sadistic tendencies of even a tiny minority of officers. Being a prison officer is a stressful, dangerous and often thankless job. The profession has been neglected for too long. It needs modernisation: rapid promotion for the gifted, perhaps up to governor grades; and performance-related pay. This would do a lot to counter the "negative culture" that Sir David identified.

For different reasons, Sir David gets on the nerves of both the POA and the Home Office. Which suggests that he is getting it right.