Enthusiast finds kernels of excellence in the nation's jails: Philippa Drew, Director of Custody with the Prison Department, tells Heather Mills why she is optimistic about the service's future - despite last weekend's Reading riot

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PHILIPPA DREW mounts a strong defence of the prison service. If optimism and enthusiasm were all that were needed to ensure the smooth running of its 130 jails, then the woman appointed Director of Custody six months ago could provide it.

For every bad report on a jail by Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Ms Drew has six good ones. And even among critical inspections she can identify positive aspects. 'Every prison has its problems but . . . there is not one that does not have some kernel of good, excellent work,' she said. But good reports about jails do not make news.

Ms Drew was speaking after Judge Tumim condemned two jails - Long Lartin, in Hereford and Worcester, and Wymott, in Lancashire - where drug-taking was rife and where gangs had created no-go areas.

She claimed that the violence that erupted at Reading over Christmas and the picture of lawlessness painted by Judge Tumim was not typical of any of those jails, let alone the prison network. But she accepts they do have difficulties. 'Prisons are small communities. They have to run with everybody's consent. They simply could not function otherwise.

'But unlike organisations delivering a service in the community, we are delivering a service to people who don't actually want to be there. Some of them have come from extremely disorganised, unhappy, violent and abusive backgrounds. Some are anti-authoritarian. Some are mentally disordered.'

She pointed out that the percentage of violent offenders serving longer sentences had doubled in 10 years, to more than 40 per cent of the 47,000 prison population. 'All I can say about the trouble at Reading is that until we know exactly what went on that this is an example of the sort of people we are dealing with.

'Given the sort of clients that we have got it would not be at all surprising to find that we have people who want to get together in gangs and intimidate staff and other prisoners. It would be surprising if they did not. When you look at that background I think that the prison service is strikingly successful in the way that it deals with people.'

Part of that success, she maintains, comes from breaking down the macho culture of the institutions: 'The presence of women officers in male establishments can defuse conflict situations and simply makes for a more normal environment,' she said.

But she cannot deny the prison service's disasters. 'Strangeways was a deep shock,' she said of the riot at the Manchester jail. But what came out of it - namely the report by Lord Justice Woolf - has unlocked a lot of creativity and constructive thinking.

Ms Drew, 46, comes from a background of creative reform. An Oxford graduate, former diplomat and field director for the Save the Children Fund, her previous tasks in the Home Office include responsibility for the probation service and drawing up the new Criminal Justice Bill, aimed at keeping less serious offenders out of prison.

Her appointment as the first woman in charge of prison security perhaps reflects the new approach to custody. 'It is a good time to be in the prison service. I am very excited that the service has opened up,' she said.

The central theme of the Woolf report, strengthening family ties and forging links with the community, is endorsed by Ms Drew. She cites a list of jails which are now working with the elderly or disabled. 'The prisoners are giving back something to the community. I think the principle of reparation is quite important.

'But it is an opportunity for prisoners to work with people who are less fortunate than themselves and that can be a very moving experience for prisoners.' But the downside of more home leave and a more relaxed regime is that it is easier for drugs to circulate.

Judge Tumim suggested in his annual report that officers turned a blind eye to cannabis because it keeps a listless, overcrowded prison population mellow. Ms Drew strongly rejected this, but said officers must maintain discretion.

Judge Tumim himself accepts that the use of Draconian methods to combat abuse could create more problems of disorder than it solves. More than 3,000 prisoners are convicted of drug offences, even more of drug-related crime. 'There is a drug culture in our society which is reflected in the prison population, Ms Drew said.

'You can never eradicate drugs from jails. Searches must be good and there is a constant need for staff to be alert. But there has to be a balance. The answer must be to cut down the demand.'

She said that more and more jails were introducing drug and drink clinics. At Long Lartin, for example, Judge Tumim's report had triggered an initiative of developing drug liaison officers as a first contact for prisoners needing counselling.

But Ms Drew believes that no matter what the initiative, nothing will work in the closed environment of a jail unless there are good staff-prisoner relations. 'Everything starts with that and finishes with that,' she said.

'Security is critically dependent upon good relationships between staff and prisoners. In forging good relationships with prisoners one of the spin-offs is good security intelligence. But it also makes prisons peaceful and safe places to live because you may get information about bullies and about prisoners' behaviour which is causing distress.'

She cited how strong staff-prisoner relations had turned round Parkhurst top security prison from a once troublesome establishment. In his latest report the judge said: 'Time and time again, inmates told us of the quality of reasonableness among staff. The skill of the staff in handling very difficult and dangerous men was obvious . . .'

Ms Drew said: 'This is a tremendous tribute to real professionalism and commitment from our staff.

'In the face of public criticism it is important to recognise the good and very worthwhile things that are being undertaken in just about every prison. But I do not want to give the impression that everything in the garden is rosy. It isn't. The service has got to be about getting better.'

(Photograph omitted)