Podium Douglas Hurd: The Government must cure our `sick nicks'

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The Independent Culture
From the Bourne Trust Memorial Lecture, delivered by the former Home Secretary and Chair of the Prison Reform Trust

LAST THURSDAY Paul Boateng, Minister for Prisons and Probation, paid his second visit to Brixton. When he came out his verdict, though couched in the opaque jargon of Whitehall, was fearsome: "Brixton must, in its current state, be regarded as a failing institution. The level of resources it currently absorbs, while at the same time failing to deliver acceptable standards of performance overall, can no longer be tolerated."

Let us turn that into plain English. Brixton is what in the Prison Service is called a "sick nick". Despite the mission statements, the key performance indicators, the millions spent, how many of our prisons are now sick? What is going wrong?

We in the Prison Reform Trust pay a lot of attention to overcrowding. This year there has been a pause in the growth of the prison population, giving the Prison Service some much-needed respite, partly because of the Home Secretary's scheme of home detention curfew. But growth has now resumed. On 29 October the total prison population in England and Wales was 66,016, compared with 40,600 at the end of 1992.

But overcrowding is not the only, and perhaps not the main, cause of the sickness. The Home Secretary did well in the comprehensive spending review. He gained pounds 200m for improving regimes. The Prison Service aims to use this money chiefly to reduce drug misuse, increase the scope of programmes to tackle offending behaviour, and improve basic skills. Well and good. The money is there. The taxpayer is shelling out. But it is not producing the results. In Wormwood Scrubs the teachers are there, from Amersham and Wycombe College. But the prisoners do not turn up. There is no one to escort them. The average daytime attendance was 38 per cent of the planned numbers. No wonder the morale of the teachers was described as "generally low". Similarly with the workshop places.

There is something amiss here that more money cannot cure. Is it wobbly management, unsure of its authority, moving too fast round the circuit, leaving key jobs unfilled at critical times? Is it the culture, in some prisons, of the Prison Officers Association, now arguably the last exponent of those old, destructive union attitudes that did such harm to Britain's public sector in the past? Are prisoners denied education because staff in key positions put this low in their priorities? These are questions to which the Government and the Prison Service have to find answers.

One possible remedy stands out. I do not want today to enter the argument about private prisons. But you do not have to privatise Wormwood Scrubs or Brixton to introduce the discipline of contractual obligations, of standards that govern the rewards and penalties awarded to management and staff. It is possible to mimic the incentives and disincentives of privatisation even within the state sector. An unreal notion? Not at all; it is being practised in Manchester, formerly known as Strangeways.

The disaster at Strangeways nine years ago produced fresh thinking and a fresh solution. Do we have to wait for similar disasters elsewhere?

Action depends on public awareness. No one took much notice of Paul Boateng's baleful verdict on Brixton. If the same report had been made on a school or hospital, there would have been an outcry. Hardly a week passes without the Prime Minister being photographed in a school or hospital announcing a new policy. Yet no serving prime minister has ever bothered to visit a prison.

Prisons provide a necessary means of punishment for serious offences. But they are still too widely regarded as a wastepaper basket into which we throw offenders because we do not want to think about them again. Unlike the contents of a wastepaper basket, these individuals come out. They creep back into our society - men and women who slipped through education without acquiring qualifications, who committed crime to finance a drug habit. So this is a matter of public interest as well as public morality.

The sickness in some of our prisons is a disgrace and a danger.