Nick Hardwick is sitting in his office, with his arms outstretched, illustrating the size of a prison cell.
“Bear in mind whenever you see an official photograph of a prison cell they seem really enormous,” he says. “But really they’re not. You can practically touch both walls. One person eats their meals on the table the other has to eat it on the bottom bunk next to the toilet. And you never see that properly in the pictures.”
Mr Hardwick has been the Chief Inspector of Prisons for four years now in a role that, in one form or another, has existed in England since the late-18th century when the prison reformer John Howard first published The State of the Prisons in 1777.
In that book, Howard described Bridewell Prison in Abingdon in the following way: “Two dirty day-rooms; and three offensive night-rooms: That for men eight feet square: one of the women’s, nine by eight: the straw, worn to dust, swarmed with vermin.”
Things have undoubtedly improved. But it is hard when talking to Mr Hardwick not to be struck by a similar type language. “Prisoners are sometimes being locked in those cells for 23 hours a day,” he says. “They can’t get out and do the basic domestics like to have a shower or make a phone call or take part in work or the rehabilitation, which is critical if they are not going to come back.
Unlike some public sector inspectorates that have powers to enforce change on the institutions they inspect, Mr Hardwick relies on the bully pulpit of his inspection reports. And recently these have been painting an increasingly bleak picture of a prison service in crisis: facing the perfect storm of rising prisoner numbers, staff shortages and a lack of meaningful activity inside that goes with that.
Mr Hardwick describes it as the Swiss cheese theory of disasters: “For a plane to crash you have to have 10 things going wrong simultaneously. The holes in the cheese need to line up. The problem in prisons now is that you still need a number of things to go wrong simultaneously but not as many things as there used to be. You have less resilience in the system.”
Mr Hardwick does not seem, by nature, to be an alarmist. He comes across as a decent and compassionate man who understands the need for prisons in society – but also recognises that they should not just be places of punishment alone.
Or, as he says: “One of my predecessors said you should be sent to prison as punishment not for punishment.”
He sees the role of his inspectorate as being to shine a light on what goes on inside prisons – because it is the one kind of state institution that cannot get “public” scrutiny.
“People in prisons are uniquely vulnerable,” he says. “There is a power imbalance between the prisoner and the jailer. If I am a warder and you are a prisoner I can use physical force on you. But also you are dependent on me for absolutely every aspect of your life.
“If you need a toilet roll I have to agree to give it to you. If you want clean pants I have to decide to give them to you. If you want to find out about your sentence I have to agree to that. There is that huge power imbalance. It takes place behind close walls so no one knows from outside what’s going on. And if you do complain – well, you’re a prisoner, so who’s going to believe you?”
His description of the first prison he visited underlines this.
“I still have memories of it,” he says. “I remember people queuing for their meals and there were a large group of big muscled guys who had obviously spent a lot of time in the gym who barged their way to the front of the queue scowling at people and coming away with plates piled high with food – while everybody else who was a bit weedier – had to make do with what was left. And I was surprised by the extent to which the prison officers there were just backing off. No one was intervening at all.”
Over the last four years he has seen good things and bad things. But a string of his recent reports have been particularly critical – much to the irritation of ministers.
Mr Hardwick is unrepentant. He sees his job as calling things as he sees them and he sees things getting worse. And he’s clear that prison overcrowding is an issue that can be tackled if there is the political will to do so.
“It’s not for the prisons inspector to say how many people should be in prisons,” he says. “But unlike other public services you can control demand. If you want the prison population to rise then your resources to deal with that need to rise as well.”
And if you don’t increase resources, Mr Hardwick believes the central mission of prisons will be lost.
“You need to make rehabilitation the central point of prisons. It’s good for the prisoners, it’s good for the economy and good for the communities in which they are going back.
“They [the Government] absolutely know what the problems are but there has to be the will to improve the situation.”