DURING the past few weeks Derek Lewis, the first director-general of the new Prison Service Agency, has been hitting the media spotlight with relentless frequency, apparently showing where the buck stops, by earnestly and forcefully dousing a series of penal service flare-ups on his patch of the embattled law and order terrain.
Recently Mr Lewis faced a furore over prisoners who re-offend while on home leave. Some disquiet, and many guffaws, followed an ignominious start to Group 4's privatised prison escort service. Mr Lewis said mistakes had been made and lessons had been learnt. But none of the lessons could be readily applied a few days ago when it emerged, by way of a leaked memorandum, that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, may be preparing to resuscitate the old Tory 'short, sharp shock' penal mentality. Mr Howard seemed set to halt a move towards more humane prison regimes recommended by the Woolf report that followed the 1990 Strangeways riots.
He was on holiday when the memo was leaked. Mr Lewis stepped forward and fielded the media brickbats, skillfully reaffirming a commitment to improved prison regimes while avoiding a rift with his political master. A report on the first official inspection of a privately run prison, the Wolds, which is managed by Group 4, expected today, notes some difficulties at the prison, including drug abuse. Mr Lewis may have to respond.
Mr Lewis has been cast in the role of piggy-in-the-middle. The line between operational and policy matters seems to be blurred. His agency, which has an annual budget of pounds 1.5bn, with 38,000 staff in charge of some 47,000 inmates held in 130 prisons and five special hospitals, is accountable to Parliament. But it must heed the concerns of prisoners, their families, increasingly vocal penal reformers and official prison inspectors.
At the best of times Mr Lewis's job would be one of the most challenging in the public sector. But Mr Lewis, a career manager whose curriculum vitae includes a spell as chief executive of Granada Group, appears to be undaunted by recent events. He is ready to confront head-on the challenges ahead.
Chief among his aims is to improve prison regimes, even though some are demanding harsher prison conditions and longer custodial sentences. Mr Lewis wants to boost staff morale but he must also privatise, or market test, parts of the service, with a possible loss of jobs. And a review of pay and grading, which aims to improve job flexibility and staff efficiency may lead to clashes with recalcitrant prison service unions.
Mr Lewis's commitment to the Woolf recommendations for better prison regimes remains unshaken, although some critics want him to be more pro-active and more strident in defence of controversial initiatives such as home leave. Punishment consists in depriving prisoners of their liberty, not in making their time in jail a misery.
Prison conditions must be acceptable but by no means luxurious. But, Mr Lewis adds: 'Prison should not be a place that people want to go to. They should have a healthy respect for what prison involves and a real desire not to be there.'
Building new prisons, enlarging existing ones, or improving regimes by providing easy access to lavatories and workshops, may require more money, Mr Lewis says. Annual capital spending are on the service stands at about pounds 250m. A third of prisons are Victorian or pre-war while half have been built since 1960. Mr Lewis warns that, in some prisons, it may not be until the turn of the century before conditions improve.
Mr Lewis concedes calmly - even his toughest critics say he is 'a very nice man' - that operational pressures which he inherited show few signs of easing. Penal reform campaigners, who argue that Mr Lewis has failed to make his mark on a service in crisis, say the rates of recidivism alone damn the penal system.
Mr Lewis says evidence that prison does not deter crime is overwhelming. Some 70 per cent of all young offenders are back inside within two years. For some adult categories the proportion of reoffenders rises to 80 per cent. A hospital with similar failure rates would be shut down.
Yet more prisons are being built to accommodate a rising prison population. Mr Lewis says: 'We tend in this country to send more people to prison per head of population than other European countries. I would be sorry to see our prison population start to move in the direction of the American pattern which has been extremely expensive in terms of deterrent and rehabilitation of prisoners.'
He reckons measures which he is currently implementing will lead to big improvements to the prison service. Mr Lewis plans to shake up the service's culture, dismantling job demarcation in order to encourage initiative and efficiency. He detects signs of improvement. 'The prison service was a very defensive culture. It had been used to being unloved and being attacked. People in prisons did not expect any recognition for taking initiatives,' Mr Lewis says.
A review now under way is expected to improve staff performance by revamping the prison service's pay structure and grading system. Mr Lewis reckons the result will be to sweep away barriers which deter potential recruits from joining the service. 'The prison service is too compartmentalised. We need to move to a situation where staff feel that they belong to the prison service but that they can move across job boundaries,' Mr Lewis says.
To make the service more action and performance orientated he intends to delegate more responsibility for operational matters to prison governors. Some may find themselves taking charge of institutions with operating costs of up to pounds 10m and managing properties worth around pounds 50m. Mr Lewis expects a more streamlined relationship with the Government to help ease a sometimes cumbersome decision-making process. His agency has recently been granted responsibility for pay bargaining.
The agency's first business plan lists six key targets ranging from the aim of keeping prisoners in custody to providing inmates with decent conditions while helping to prepare them for life after jail. Critics retort that the most significant target should be a desire to reduce the recidivism rate.
On the subject of market testing Mr Lewis, as befits a member of the Adam Smith Institute, maintains that allowing private companies to run prisons in competition with those under direct prison service management will boost efficiency. His hope is that prisons managed under contract will help to inject new ideas into the service. Two prisons are now being run by private companies.
One key question which has yet to be resolved is how much of the prison service should be handed over to the private sector. 'We will need to have a private sector of a size that is sustainable longer term if we are to get the benefits of competition,' Mr Lewis says. How the rival prison sectors perform will determine the way business will be shared between them. Mr Lewis says the outright sale of prisons to private companies would be impractical.
As for the jokes about Group 4, it is apparently all quiet on the prisoner escort front. Mr Lewis says that Group 4's escape rates have now dropped to half of the levels in areas where prisoners are escorted by police or the prison service. Seven have submitted bids to run the London area escort service which will go out to tender shortly. Market testing in the metropolitan area will be introduced piecemeal. Derek Lewis expects the last laugh.
In articles published on 26 August and 3 September, the Independent incorrectly described Derek Lewis, director-general of the prison service, as a member of the Adam Smith Institute. Mr Lewis has asked us to point out that he is not, and never has been, a member of this organisation.
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