This week's big questions: What is prison for? Do we want super-jails?

This week's big questions are answered by Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons

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The Independent Online

What is prison for?

Going to even the best-run prison for just a short time is a very severe punishment. There are no holiday camps. Prisoners need to be held safely, decently and securely. But none of that is a prison’s purpose – those are the conditions that need to be met before anything else can happen. The purpose of every prison should be that each prisoner they release is less likely to commit offences than when they went in.

Why is our prison population so high compared with other European countries?

In part, that is because we’re not very good at the first point – trying to ensure they don’t come back. The Government’s new focus on the rehabilitation of short-term prisoners is, therefore, welcome. But the key population issue is not can prisons squeeze all the prisoners into the available cells – they can – but do they have the resources necessary to do anything useful with them once they are there? Answer: under a lot of pressure.

When you visit a prison, what are the principles and practices you are hoping to see in operation?

We inspect against four “healthy prison tests”: safety – prisoners, particularly the most vulnerable, are held safely; respect – prisoners are treated with respect for their human dignity; purposeful activity – prisoners are able, and expected, to engage in activity that is likely to be beneficial; resettlement – prisoners are prepared for their release into the community and helped to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Almost half of prisoners reoffend within a year of leaving. How do we address this?

1. See question 1 above. 2. Ensure there are effective community alternatives in place. 3. Recognise that the needs of women offenders are different. 4. Never, ever release a child or young person from custody (many of whom will have spent much of their lives in care) into bed and breakfast accommodation with almost no support. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. 5. Work with prisoners’ families, and the voluntary groups that support them, when possible. They will often be the key “agency” providing accommodation, work and support.

A prison governor this week suggested allowing phones in cells so that prisoners could keep in touch with their families. A good idea?

In many cases, yes – with proper monitoring and controls on their use. At a practical level, they would be easier to manage than the mobile phones that are smuggled into every prison and would avoid the tensions that sometimes occur around the queues to use the phones on the wings in the current system. More important, in many cases it would support rehabilitation if it was easier for prisoners to stay in touch with their families, employers, etc.

Chris Grayling has plans for a “super-jail” housing some 2,000 prisoners. How do you view this prospect?

Cautiously. These plans are not on the same scale as the previous government’s plans for “Titan” prisons holding 5,000 prisoners. A few of our largest existing prisons already hold 1,600-plus men. But the inspection evidence shows that big prisons are more difficult to run than smaller ones and often provide less good outcomes. A lot will depend on how things are actually delivered on the ground – and we make judgements on what we find when we inspect, not future plans.

With the report into the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal due soon, is there an issue around the way our large-scale institutions are managed?

There is an issue how large, closed institutions – prisons, hospitals, children’s homes – are inspected. There is no substitute for regular, rigorous, independent inspection that focuses on the experience of the user rather than auditing compliance with management processes, and reporting publicly. The prison experience is not that inspection of this type catches institutions out doing things wrong but that it helps to prevent things going wrong in the first place.

As a former head of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, what do you think of the Met Police chief’s idea of drug-testing people in the workplace?

The prison experience is useful here. Drug-testing is an intrusive process and, other than for some very specialist roles, I do not think it can be justified as a routine procedure. It is not foolproof and many substances that might compromise safe working practices simply do not show up. Routine drug-testing on its own is likely to provide false assurance and may cause some users to switch to worse alternatives. Drug-testing should generally be risk-based and combined with other sources of intelligence. I doubt very much whether it should or could be used for the working population as a whole.

Is there a crisis of trust in our police?

There is no doubt that some recent events have been very damaging, and too many people’s day-to-day experience of contact with the police is poor. Of course, there is much that is positive as well. I am very pleased that with this week’s MPs’ report, at last, there seems to be recognition that the IPCC needs more powers and resources. I think it will help to improve trust.