Chief prisons inspector Nick Hardwick interview: ‘You need to make rehabilitation the central point’

In the latest in our series of interviews with government inspectors, Oliver Wright talks to Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas