Phil Wheatley: 'We're solving problems, not leaving grievances to run'

The Monday Interview: Director General of the Prison Service
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A straitjacket 70 years old, marked with the arrow design, is on display in the corner of the governor's office in Bedford Prison. Phil Wheatley smiles. "I'm pleased to say we don't use it any more."

That fading restraint, showing signs of regular use in the pre-war years, was discovered during refurbishment at the jail, which has been holding vagabonds and thieves for more than two centuries.

The prison's main entrance is high enough to accommodate horses pulling carts full of convicts, and the cells in its main Victorian wing are so small they admit barely any of the pale winter light. But Bedford, and dozens of other 19th-century jails, are at the forefront of the penal system's struggle against the 21st-century ills of soaring incarceration rates, chronic drug abuse and record suicide levels.

When Mr Wheatley became director general of the Prison Service in March, he appeared to have inherited one of the most poisoned chalices in public life. The jail population, western Europe's highest, seems to be on a remorseless upward curve, staff recruitment is a severe problem, particularly in the South-east, and inspections routinely criticise conditions for inmates.

Then there are the regular crises, such as the security blunder that allowed an undercover News of the World reporter to work for four months at the prison holding the Soham murder suspect, Ian Huntley.

But Mr Wheatley, as the first former prison officer to reach the top of the service, can draw on 34 years' experience - including a spell at Hull jail when the Krays and the Great Train Robbers were in his charge - to put the plight of the country's prisons in perspective.

Taking Bedford's keys, he conducts a lightning tour of what he calls a typical local prison. Ports of call include the induction unit, where the problems of new arrivals (up to 40 a day) are assessed, and the medical centre where potentially suicidal inmates are held in "safer" cells without ligature points they can use to hang themselves. Its cells, although inevitably spartan, have lavatories and televisions.

He compares that with his first job at £16 a week at Leeds Prison. "I saw grim conditions, prisoners three to a cell, slopping out. The excitement for a prisoner was the possibility you worked in a workshop hand-sewing mailbags, where half the workshop hand-waxed thread. It sounds Dickensian, but it wasn't that long ago."

Its officers were "rough and ready, probably ex-Services, part of a culture where everybody had done National Service; much more likely to be abusive. Foul language was the order of the day".

He says: "That's not how we are now. It's a much more professional service, with far greater understanding of the prisoners we are looking after and our duty to maintain control and order, but also to treat people decently, properly and humanely." He also compares today's "structured, disciplined" efforts to educate and train inmates with the basket-weaving class offered to the old lags at Leeds.

But in Mr Wheatley's time the prison population has more than doubled to almost 74,200, and there are now more than 5,300 lifers compared with 600 in the late 1960s. "Although the numbers are much greater, the system is bigger," he says. We aren't overcrowding the way we did in those days with everybody three to a cell. There has been a lot of Government investment over the years in new prison places; some converted places, quite a lot in new prisons. Although I worry about overcrowding, I know it's better than it was when I joined the service and actually for a lot of my working life, because a lot of that gross overcrowding ended with the Strangeways riot [of 1990]. We're not even near that sort of level nowadays."

The softly-spoken director general is scrupulous to avoid criticising the politicians and judiciary responsible for creating a climate in which more offenders are jailed but he concedes lack of space affects the quality of life behind bars.

"It can be distracting if we are running up to full capacity. But we have been able to guarantee the major targets we have are being met in spite of that pressure. What I have to admit, is that if you have 74,000 prisoners instead of 70,000, then in terms of the time out of cell, purposeful activity ... I have a limit to what I can supply. If it's going to be shared among a larger group that means some people are going to miss out."

He acknowledges the days of minor debtors and divorced men missing maintenance payments being jailed are long gone but hints that some courts may take too punitive an approach to sentencing when he says he believes prison is the appropriate punishment for "most" of his charges. "I hope the courts with relatively minor offenders will use custodial sentences only where they think it is necessary. There are challenging community sentences which are an adequate punishment and I hope they use those." Mr Wheatley agrees the service faces a monumental problem in combating chronic drug-abuse levels among new arrivals; in some prisons, 80 per cent of offenders admitted have been on hard drugs. But the feared summer disturbances did not materialise because, he says: "Prisons are working more professionally, more decently; prisoners are being treated better, not softly, just better. We're solving problems, not leaving grievances to run.

"Prison must be bearable; if it's not bearable, we will have much higher suicide rates. You can prevent suicide only if we make it seem for somebody arriving in prison (the critical period is the first few days) as though it's something you can get through."

The CV

Age: 55

Education: Leeds Grammar School, Sheffield University (law);

1969-70 Officer, Hatfield borstal, Leeds Prison;

1970-74 Assistant governor, Hull Prison;

1974-78 Training specialist, Prison Service College;

1978-82 Assistant governor, Leeds Prison;

1982-86 Deputy governor, Gartree Prison, Leics;

1986-90 Governor, Hull;

1990-92 Prison Service East Midlands area manager;

1992-95 Assistant director of custody, Prison Service;

1995-1999 Director of dispersals (in charge of six highest security jails);

1998-2003 Deputy director general, Prison Service

March 2003 Director general, Prison Service.