Johann Hari: The real prisons scandal is yet to come

The Government is shutting down the independent prisons inspectorate
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even in our Attention Deficit Democracy, where barely a single issue stays in our minds beyond a 24-hour news cycle, prisons scandals will not go away. The headline-snatching "scandals" this year have been the failure to deport foreign criminals at the end of their stretch and the bitter row about the early release of violent offenders. The real scandals are actually far worse.

Our prisons are so bad at rehabilitation that 70 per cent of inmates leave jail with the reading age of an eight-year-old or worse, and reoffend within two years. What other public service fails so comprehensively? Last week's report of the public inquiry into the bludgeoning to death of Zahid Mubarek by his psychopath cellmate in Feltham young offender institutionexposed the scores of "systemic failures" in the prison service that allowed this murder to happen. And there is another bad moon rising - Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, warns that our prisons are at "bursting point". This could yet be a summer of jailhouse riots.

So in this situation, the Government is doing the logical thing. No, it is not increasing funding for prison education and rehousing. No, it is not easing overcrowding by stopping the senseless jailing of fine defaulters, sex workers and the mentally ill. It is doing something much better. It is shutting down the independent Prisons Inspectorate, the men and women who have been warning about all this for years. It's an age-old piece of wisdom - kill the messenger and the problem will go away.

Until now, Britain's Prisons Inspectorate has been a model for the world, one of the few things we do right in our jails. Set up in the 1980s after a long government review, our jails inspector is an independent figure who can go anywhere, see anything behind Her Majesty's bars. His (or, currently, her) remit is to make sure prisoners are not abused, and that rehabilitation is taking place.

Our prisons inspectors have exposed and rectified dozens of abuses over the past decade, from prisons that "lost" 15-year-old girls somewhere within their walls to women being shackled as they gave birth, to the dangerous practice of forcing menstruating women to use buckets and "slop out" in the morning. Dozens of countries have sent delegations to learn from the British model. The UN, Amnesty International and others have praised it. And it is all about to be thrown away.

The Government is going to "merge" the Prisons Inspectorate into a new super-regulator, which will include the inspectors who watch over our courts, police and probation officers. At first glance, this might not sound so bad - but instead of being independent, reporting directly to the public about the service we pay for, the new prisons inspectors will work "as directed by ministers". They will be subject to political pressures and political whims.

You can understand the kind of inspectors the Government has in mind by looking at the inspectorates they are being grouped with in this new department - the people who watch over the courts, police and probation officers. All these inspectorates consist of insiders, people who come from the field they are inspecting and may go back to it. They work inside government and sit on panels with ministers. They offer friendly advice, not the brave exposés (and bad headlines) that are necessary in a system that holds absolute power over its inmates.

Lord David Ramsbottom, our former chief inspector of prisons, is not a man prone to exaggeration or hyperbole. He is a military man who served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, and he has the restrained, clipped tones of an army general. But when he speaks about the Government's new proposals, his military reserve melts away. The new plan is, he says, "obscene" and "despicable". He tells me: "At a time when the Home Office is in complete disarray, the Government is sweeping away one of the few effective rocks of stability in the system.

"Once you start making inspectors what the Government wants them to be, that's the slippery slope to disaster. Ministers will no longer hear awkward truths. They will hear what they want to hear. If you don't gather the right evidence, you'll put in the wrong solutions. I was warning them for bloody ages about the problem with foreign prisoners, and so was [Anne Owers, his predecessor]. They need to listen to us more, not get rid of us." It's true - if you look through the stacks of inspectors' reports, the inspectors were frantically pointing successive Home Secretaries towards the political minefield of foreign prisoners for years.

Anybody who has spent time in Britain's prisons can see the need for independent inspectors with a dark black clarity. On a visit to Wormwood Scrubs last year, for example, I discovered it was largely an ill-equipped warehouse for the mentally ill. On one ward, I met Anthony, a man who was sent to Scrubs six months before, after being found walking naked around his south London neighbourhood. The doctors agreed he had irreversible brain damage, the result of failing to take his epilepsy medication. He was 45, but as he shuffled into the room he looked 65, with a tight hunch and, I soon discovered, early onset dementia. Trailing behind him was a plastic bag full of rubbish that he carries everywhere, like a security blanket. He didn't know where he was or why he was in there. At one point, he thought I was his father. At another, he thought I was the judge from his trial.

This non-interview was interrupted by somebody punching at the door with all their strength. The prison officer says about this screaming person: "He was sectioned yesterday." Then why is he still here? "We can't find a bed yet." These poor prison officers were being forced to be mental health nurses, without the training to do it. Nobody knew how long Anthony would be in prison. "There just aren't the mental health beds," the officer explained sadly. When I told Luke Sergent, the Scrubs governor, about the string of insane people I have encountered, he was in despair. "It's quite common. There is no doubt we have people in this prison who are so mentally ill they shouldn't be here."

Without an independent prisons inspector from the end of the summer, there will be nobody to warn us about the thousands of Anthonys who are rotting in our prison system. John Reid will be allowed to prove he is Hard Labour by inflicting the moral equivalent of hard labour on thousands of people, because our guard dogs against abuse will have been taken round the back of the House of Commons and put down. Oh, and prison scandals will continue to beat their way on to the news agenda. Next time, at least, the Home Secretary had better not dare to ask why nobody warned him.