Prisoner of politics and 12-hour day

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Embarrassed by escapes and riots, prison governors are disillusioned and unhappy. In a remarkably frank interview, Bob Duncan (left), governor of Wakefield prison, says he and his colleagues are trapped between the liberal policies introduced afte r LordWoolf's report into the 1990 Strangeways riot and Michael Howard's determination to `get tough' on offenders. Buried in bureaucracy,castigated for allowing prisoners a `luxury lifestyle', some governors simply crack.

"I DON'T know how I cope some days. I hear of colleagues cracking and I wonder why it doesn't happen to me. You just despair and wonder what you've managed to do all day: you have to run just to stand still. I work a 12-hour day, then I take work home. I'm on 24-hour call. I don't sleep as well as I should I get up at 5am and start work at home before coming to work."

The speaker, Bob Duncan, 54, has run the top-security Wakefield prison in West Yorkshire for the past three years. A London School of Economics social psychology graduate, he is considered extremely able by his peers and colleagues. A traditionalist, he has been criticised twice by Judge Stephen Tumim, Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons, for using old-fashioned methods.

Wakefield houses 700 inmates, 300 of them lifers and most serving 10 years or more, without major disaster. After a 30-year career in prison management, however, Mr Duncan is struggling to cope in a service which appears to be disintegrating around him. Like many in the prison service he is caught between the liberal recommendations of the Woolf inquiry and Mr Howard's sweeping proposals to toughen prison regimes.

"Head-office policies contradict each other and cause problems for local management. Some of the Woolf policies were quite reasonable but there were elements that went over the top. One standard was that overseas prisoners should be allowed an official call home on public phones once a month. Mr Woodcock [who ran the inquiry into the attempted breakout from Whitemoor prison last September] now says the opposite.

"One or two prisons were allowed to give prisoners television sets. Then the Home Secretary said they couldn't have television sets. Television doesn't have anything to do with security. I think it was the image. Now, in some prisons they're still issued. Prisoners move on to the next prison and we take it all off them. Some have personal ones. Manchester now rents them out. We have a confusing policy."

In another get-tough measure last November Mr Howard clamped down on conditions for allowing prisoners home leave. "I'm confused. In one sense, governors have been a bit liberal about allowing home leave, but that came down from the top; there was a presumption that you had to justify refusing it as opposed to the prisoner justifying receiving it. Now we've turned that on its head. And there's always lots of paperwork when you change a policy."

The Home Secretary also announced that life prisoners should be told when they could expect to have a review of the time they spend in jail, known as their tariff. He intervened personally to quash hopes of a release for Myra Hindley in the near future.

"I've got lost on what a tariff is. We seem to have changed that repeatedly over the last 10 years. A tariff is not a release date, it is a review date. I think governors should be in the business of assessing risk to the public. We ought to be listened to. You've got to retain an air of hope. What safety do you give to prison staff or other prisoners from someone who has no hope of ever being released? Our purpose is to protect the public by holding him in prison and to prepare him for a useful life onrelease. Now the Home Secretary is undermining [that].

Mr Duncan said he and his colleagues now had to cope with prisoners who, because of relaxed regimes introduced in the early 1990s, believe certain privileges have become their right. At the same time Mr Howard is clamping down on those privileges to squash reports of inmates "living in luxury".

"Prisoners should earn privileges and incentives and if they abuse them those privileges should be withdrawn. Governors have been saying that for a long time. So in one sense I think Michael Howard was correct in saying we needed to redraw the line. But because he did it in a political way he went to the other extreme.

"We deal with a very volatile group of people. We are expected to apply the regulations of the prison department, which have got a bit confused over the last two years.

"I think we need to spend more on training middle managers. We're dealing with people's lives and we need to take our staff with us. The Home Secretary has been a bit ham-fisted.

"I haven't taken my leave entitlement in 10 years. I smoke. I don't take any exercise and I work those hours. There is no limit to how much you can devote to the job. I've not had a day sick since 1966. I've got a very supportive wife. I'm just lucky, I guess. I like my work. I'm proud of the prison service. But not this particular week. I'm not proud of some of the things that have happened."