New prisons chief calls for more caring, 'less scary' jails

Jails should be more "caring" places where inmates feel "at home", says Britain's new prisons chief. The gentler approach would help to cut record levels of suicide and self-harm, argues Phil Wheatley, director-general of the prison service in a rare interview.

Mr Wheatley, who was appointed to the job in March, told The Independent on Sunday that conditions should be made "less scary". He admits that some criminals end up "badly damaged" by their experiences in jail.

"You try to make sure people have the information so they feel at home in the place ... that they think it [the sentence] is do-able," says Mr Wheatley. "As a result of doing imprisonment people are badly damaged and come out unable to cope."

His comments come at a time when the prison service is under extreme pressure to deal with record numbers of inmates. Last year's suicide toll was also an all-time high.

Mr Wheatley's comments will place him on a collision course with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, whose increasingly tough sentencing policy has led to the huge explosion in the prison population. He previously clashed with Mr Blunkett in the summer when he suggested prison was "not the answer to crime".

Prison reformers have condemned the rise in the number of prison suicides, which they blame on over-crowding and inhumane conditions.

Mr Wheatley admitsthat the "whole population" of prisoners is at risk of suicide. "No one sits in prison thinking suicide is good and that we shouldn't be working hard to prevent it. We are trying to harness that to make prison feel like a place that is more caring."

His proposals include increasing the numbers of nurses trained to detect vulnerable prisoners, providing information booklets for prisoners, and improving greeting schemes where new prisoners are taken under the wing of serving inmates.