Howard's prison time-bomb

The fiasco over early releases has thrown a new source of instability into a system already groaning under an inept regime. Change course now, or face an explosion of violence, says Polly Toynbee
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The Independent Online
One man telephoned the Prisoners Advice Service yesterday full of ecstatic glee, sounding as if he had just won the lottery jackpot. He was serving seven consecutive sentences and he had just calculated that instead of being released in 2005 he should be out next year, if the courts uphold the interpretation of the law that has already sprung 80 surprised and delighted prisoners. "He was in heaven, absolute heaven," said one of the prisoners' rights workers. "How is he going to feel if the courts decide the old interpretation of the law is correct after all? There is going to be an explosion in the prisons."

Everywhere there are dire warnings of an outburst of prison riots, whichever way the courts decide to interpret the 1967 Criminal Justice Act. Prisons have been put on alert. Mark Leech, author of the Prisoners' Handbook published by the Oxford University Press, and a former long-serving prisoner, said he had more than 100 calls yesterday from prisoners hoping for early release and ex-prisoners calculating how much compensation they might be due. "One man was in a next-door cell to one of the 80 suddenly let out last week. It wasn't fair, he said, that some should get out because they just squeezed through the door in time. They are fuming. I'm afraid that this will go off all round the country."

The full scale of the chaos and potential calamity is beginning to hit everyone associated with prisons. How on earth could it have happened that the law was quietly reinterpreted by Home Office lawyers, with no assessment of the effect it would have? The new interpretation allows time on remand to be deducted from each concurrent sentence, not just from one. Some prisoners have been let out early - another 4,000 might follow, and beyond that the number due compensation is currently entirely impossible to quantify. The top rate for wrongful imprisonment is pounds 95 a day. Anyone in the past six years who served longer than they should have could claim, some for considerable periods of time. Many who suffered any kind of damage while wrongfully imprisoned could make backdated claims over the past 30 years. How many people? No one knows. How many millions or zillions of pounds could it cost? Who can tell?

The absurdity of what has happened defies any rational understanding. One prisoner who had served seven years described how it happened to him: he was in the prison workshop when officers came in and called him back to his cell, told him to pack up his possessions, took him in front of the governor and put him out of the front gate, all within 20 minutes. He thought he had another year to serve. When he arrived in London, the probation service, unprepared, had nowhere to send him and nothing to offer.

Mark Leech describes how hard it is to leave prison after years inside. "The pre-release courses run by the prison probation officers really make a difference. They tell you how to claim benefit. They tell you what has changed out there, help find you a hostel, maybe a job or at least a training course, and the probation officers outside are waiting for you."

On release a prisoner who has been inside for a year or more gets about pounds 92 cash and a travel warrant to anywhere. In normal times, each prisoner gets a tailor-made three-piece suit - the tailor coming in to measure him up, with material chosen by the prisoner. He gets two pairs of pyjamas, two shirts, a pair of jeans, working boots, shoes, slippers, an overcoat, gym shorts and vest, toiletries and a holdall. The shock of sudden unprepared ejection can be considerable.

The sound of raucous chortling from many within the Prison Service and the Home Office has given way to sheer incredulity at the scale of the incompetence. All lay the blame squarely at Michael Howard's door. Not the particular blame for this particular bungle. But, many say, such a bizarre disaster could only have happened in the climate of fear and confusion over the line of command over which Howard has presided.

Yesterday's meeting between Howard and his director of prisons, Richard Tilt, dragged on amid speculation about the sulphurous smoke billowing out from beneath the door. But few expect Tilt to be fired and none, of course, expects Howard to resign.

Who is to blame for all this? On the surface, Tilt's decision to go off on holiday to Italy leaving only an unremarkable memo on the Home Secretary's desk, which completely failed to flag up the operational and political dynamite of the situation, makes him culpable in many eyes.

Tilt has to explain why he consulted only relatively humble Home Office lawyers on a reinterpretation of the law that would have such devastating effects. Why did he not ponder and take senior legal opinion and, above all, why not discuss it with the Home Secretary? How could he think that releasing an unknown number of possibly serious offenders as much as nine years early, without warning or preparation, would mean anything but catastrophic headlines - with perhaps worse consequences? The first crime committed by one of these 80 released prisoners can be guaranteed a trumpeting in the tabloids.

But Richard Tilt is not a naive outsider like his unfortunate predecessor, Derek Lewis. He is a sober long-serving civil servant with a thorough prison service grounding. What insiders say is that it happened because the command structure in the prison service has been so shot to pieces by Michael Howard that no one knows any longer what buck stops where, if anywhere. They are so dispirited, demoralised and intimidated by petty interference, coupled with sheer irresponsibility by ministers, that they have become fatally disoriented. It does not help that Howard and his prisons minister, Ann Widdecombe, are barely on speaking terms.

No doubt calls for Howard's resignation will be wasted breath. But his law-and-order mantra will have been lethally damaged. He can no longer, for instance, say "prison works" without a lot of sniggering up sleeves. He can no longer with a straight face accuse Labour of planning to release serious offenders.

But what should be done? First of all, the disastrous split between Home Office and Prison Service needs to be abandoned.

Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, observing all this, says: "A hell of a lot of chickens are coming home to roost. You can put out to agencies operations such as driving licences or passports, where the line between policy and operation is simple. But with prisons there is a huge area of discretion involved from day to day. Ministers are now divorced from day-to-day management and yet they interfere without understanding the system, the worst of both worlds. The prisons minister should chair a prisons board, listening to day-to-day decision-making but only intervening where it seems necessary."

What else should be done now? It is time for a far-reaching examination of the role of prison. Mr Howard has placed the service under intolerable strain. This extraordinary error is a symptom of a system that is near collapse and no longer knows what it is for.

For months now, as the prison population has soared, there have been warnings that jails are becoming unstable. Education, therapy, drink and drugs programmes and schemes to make criminals confront their crimes have all been savagely cut. Three hundred prison teachers have been sacked. Some prisons have lost 80 per cent of their education programmes. Prisoners are locked away for longer, with less exercise and fewer television sets, while regimes are tougher and security tighter. "In some prisons it would only take a spark. I am increasingly afraid," one prison governor said the other day. Is this that spark? Raising some prisoners' hopes of release only to dash them again could prove dangerously explosive.

There is a lot of schadenfreude around. The collapse of Michael Howard's prison works policy in a blaze of flame would please many. But riots kill and maim, as well as wasting millions of pounds that could be better spent than on rebuilding jails. Wiping the smile off Howard's face would come at too high a price, whatever the satisfaction for those who could say, "I told you so".

The moment we stop to consider money in the criminal justice system, the figures are frightening. Every year we spend pounds 10bn on the whole panoply of prisons, police, courts and probation. What do we get for our money? Eighteen million crimes are committed in England and Wales - but fewer than half are ever reported to the police, and fewer than 5 per cent are officially "cleared up". Only 3 per cent result in the offender being cautioned or convicted.

While every other department is subjected to rigorous value-for-money scrutiny, the criminal justice system seems to be virtually exempt. Mr Howard can boast that he has increased the prison population by 25 per cent, with another 30 per cent increase predicted when his new sentencing policy comes in. Yet every piece of evidence suggests that prison works very little for the vast amount it costs - pounds 2,000 a month per prisoner.

The Home Office's own research department is brimming with figures that show what works best per pound spent - all of it ignored by the present regime. Sir Stephen Tumim has said time and again that many of those in prison can be turned away from crime if only they are given the education and treatment they need. From Britain and the US come plentiful examples of intensive treatment for criminals in the community that work - and cost far less than prison.

It took the murderous Strangeways riot to bring radical reforms last time, with Lord Justice Woolf's powerful indictment of how the prisons were run. It should not require another lethal dose of mayhem and destruction for the policy to be changed again. The Government needs to turn away from a policy that is the despair of all who work in prisons.