We should be nicer to prisoners claims jail chief

Life inside can be frightening for new inmates. Too often they leave damaged and unable to cope, the head of the prison service tells Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online

Britain's jails need to be made less scary for new inmates, the Government's prisons chief has told The Independent on Sunday.

In a rare interview, Phil Wheatley, who took over in March as director general of the prison service, admitted some criminals ended up badly damaged by the system. His comments follow a record high of 105 suicides in jails in 2002-03. At the same time, the prison population has now reached more than 74,000.

Mr Wheatley has previously clashed with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, about the "overuse" of jails and over-long sentences for some criminals. The director general, who began his working life as a prison officer more than 30 years ago, has seen jail conditions improve. But he is still unhappy at the progress and admits life should be easier for inmates.

"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," Mr Wheatley said.

"Coming into prison is a time of great crisis in your life. You could be struggling with mental health problems, coming off drugs, worrying about the effect on your family outside. You're worried your mum hasn't come to visit you, or your girlfriend has gone off with someone else.

"We must work to make this as bearable as possible. I'm not saying it should be scary, it is scary. You can't say to someone you've got to do a period of imprisonment without that producing in their minds a fear that they can't manage.

"There are ways of making it less scary. As a result of doing imprisonment, people are badly damaged and come out unable to cope."

Mr Wheatley said the prison service had to work hard to make coming into jail as bearable as possible,especially during the reception process.

His proposals include increasing the numbers of nurses trained to detect vulnerable prisoners, providing information booklets for prisoners and improving schemes where new prisoners are taken under the wing of serving inmates. "I've always believed that treating people properly is important stuff, not treating casually or brutally or wrongly," Mr Wheatley said.

"Yes, actually caring about them as individuals who have some worth, not as numbers. It's like going to school for the first time, that process of arriving in this big place people have told you bad stories about. We are trying to make sure we settle people in instead of saying, 'well, that's it. You're here now, away you go'."

Mr Wheatley said there had been a 21 per cent reduction in the number of suicides since he took over - and since the record figure was reached.

But he admitted that he did not think suicide in prison would ever be eradicated. He said the whole population of prisoners was at risk.

"We are always looking at whether we have got suicide prevention policies right ... We cannot produce a suicide-free environment and have anything like a decent life for people.

"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 and will deal with people in distress."

He said that projections by the Home Office that the population in prisons would increase to more than 100,000 by the end of the decade were wrong.

"Projecting the prison population is very difficult because you are trying to forecast what crime will be like, what will the police response be like.

"At the moment, the population projections we are working with are substantially wrong.

"I know that's very awkward stuff to do and get right. I'm running with more capacity than I expected because the population projections have proved to be inaccurate."

Mr Wheatley draws on 30 years' experience in the service. He began work in Leeds prison in 1969 after completing a law degree.

In those days jails were much harsher. Conditions have improved. Under Mr Wheatley's guidance and with the right resources, the prison service may just have a chance of coping.