A healthier way of life on the inside: A good prison, argues Judge Stephen Tumim, should seek to offer security, care and help, not further punishment

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WHEN I was appointed in 1987 to be Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in England & Wales, 'Fresh Start' was all the talk. This was a system of reforming the way prisons were run at local level by ending an overtime system and a number of traditional, but not very economical, staff practices. Its failure or success in a prison appeared to turn very much on the numbers of staff in post on the date it began: some prisons were luckier than others. The fiercer the arguments about alleged staff shortages between officers and management, the longer the lock-up hours for prisoners and the more reduced the regime.

Many of these problems have diminished over the years. There have been policy changes at higher management level as well as among junior staff. The clusters - the geographical areas of prison management - are being redrawn. The Prison Service has been declared an agency, rather than staying under direct Home Office command. Outside companies have been hired to do various prison jobs, including in some cases managing the whole prison. Education has come under fresh controllers.

The key phrases of the Nineties reverberate in the prison world: 'market testing', 'contracting out', 'contractorisation'. When a big institution such as the Prison Service looks at its own management with the suspicions and uncertainties current today, it is likely to be the daily regime of prisoners that is restricted.

But in many ways we are in a much better position to move forward than for some years. We have had the Woolf Report and other studies, culminating in the White Paper of 1991, Custody, Care and Justice. This is a crisp statement of government policy. It begins: 'This White Paper charts a course for the Prison Service . . . for the rest of the century and beyond: the aim is to provide a better prison system. This will require more effective measures of security and control; a better and more constructive relationship between prisoners and staff; and more active, challenging and useful programmes for prisoners.'

We have two other papers. Doing Time & Using Time, the Inspectorate's substantial paper on regimes, is saying that prisons for too long have been seen as warehouses. Whether they are nice places or nasty is a peculiarly English and, ultimately, irrelevant question. We should be making them active and constructive places where the prisoners can be helped. The latest paper, Opening the Doors, by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, is a useful contribution, spelling out in detail how, in and out of prison, the work of preparing prisoners for resettlement can be carried out.

It has long been said - I think originally by the late Sir Alexander Paterson, that most eloquent of Prison Commissioners - that 'prisons are as punishment, not for punishment'. Each time I hear it I have to calculate what this means.

I prefer to say that punishment is a matter for the courts; they deprive people of freedom. The duty of the Prison Service is set out in the succinct statement of purpose that is written up on every prison gate: 'Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the Courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.'

Note that there is no mention of punishment or treatment here: it deals with security, care and help.

What, then, makes a good prison? It must be active. A bad prison is where men are lying on their beds in the middle of the day. It must be able to promote the Statement of Purpose. This turns on the type of prisoner the institution holds. A small minority of prisoners are dangerous and violent. A few are juveniles. Some are women. Some are so vulnerable to pressures from other prisoners that they have to be held in separate accommodation. Some should probably be transferred to a mental hospital. Some can be trusted in open conditions.

But most prisoners fall into a particular category. They are male and under 30. Their offences are connected with stealing cars, burglary and occasionally drugs, but they are not given to violence. They were failures at school, and they know too little to lead useful lives outside. Their family links are weak and they have poor relationships with their families and very often with women generally.

It is this large group on which most good prisons concentrate. Such prisoners need remedial teaching as well as further education. They need to be taught working skills and they need social training to cope with the problems of drink, drugs, Aids, and, above all, their own offending behaviour. They need to learn how to cope with job interviews, budgeting and, often, hygiene.

If they are to resettle and avoid further convictions, they will certainly need strong links

with their families or other supporters in the community.

For this group, and perhaps for almost all prisoners, the good prison is a pre-release course from the very first day. An induction course tells them what is on offer and what is expected of them. Training is offered, and they are encouraged to take full advantage of it.

Once training is put into effect, work must be available either in the same prison or in another in the same cluster, where the prisoner can easily be transferred. There will inevitably be failures. Prisoners, like other members of the community, are certainly not exempt from being dropouts.

The good prison, then, must be secure to hold the prisoner. The latter is entitled to humane care, including reasonable sanitation and cleaning materials. But, above all, the prisoner must be helped to lead a law-abiding life in accordance with the Statement of Purpose.

The most cheering prospect today is that we have the guidelines and, if we follow them - in particular the Government White Paper - we should be able vastly to increase the number of good prisons already established. Any delay, as we found in the Woolf Report, is more the result of a failure in attitudes than of a shortage of money. It is important to achieve the end of slopping out, as intended, by Christmas 1994. It is more important to have active prisons where prisoners are firmly helped to lead law-abiding lives when they come out.

James Fenton is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)