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

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project