Martin Narey: I want a prison service that makes lives better

From an address delivered by the director general of the Prison Service at its annual conference in Nottingham
Click to follow

No one thinks that locking more and more people up is a sensible way of spending public money. Many of the people we are locking up will not benefit in any way from their sentence. Many of them will lose jobs, accommodation and family support and will become more criminal. Meanwhile, the very significant numbers in prison whom we can change, whose lives can be given a new direction, get too little attention as we struggle to cope with the insanity of a prison population that may hit 70,000 this summer.

The harsh reality is that when we go to the Treasury with a bid for resources for thousands more additional prison places, as we are doing right now, the probability of additionally getting the investment to make prisons the decent and reformative places we know they can be is bleak.

Despite the terribly tight financial situation, I don't think I am being complacent when I describe a prison service that is a radically better, more secure and more caring service. That, remember, was the verdict of David Ramsbotham as he left the inspectorate. Of course, there are places that still need significant reform, and I have no intention of sitting back on what has been achieved at the places that have been improved.

But what I think we can do is effect a change of tone. I acknowledge that mine and the board's concentration for the last three years has been on those establishments, and there were a lot of them three years ago, where the treatment of those in our care was intolerable. That was right. We had to face up to the enormity of the problem and the fact, quite frankly, that we did not always know which establishments were good or bad until the inspectorate told us.

Last year I put to ministers a personal vision of where I wanted the service to be in three years' time. My board endorsed and shared that vision, and it was persuasive enough for the Home Secretary to decide to extend my contract for a further three years.

In that vision, which I would like to share with you all, I talked of a service in which no establishment is seriously failing with the basics – where a safe and decent environment is a given for all in our care. I talked of a service in which all staff understand and accept that the poor care of prisoners, lack of respect, ill-treatment or racist behaviour are utterly unacceptable.

I want to see us closing, permanently, some of our most inadequate establishments – not just the Victorian ones – and giving staff a new environment with decent facilities in new replacement prisons. And while the private sector will build those new prisons, I want to give the public sector the opportunity to demonstrate that they can run them.

In short, I want a service that can take people failed by almost every other public service, and frequently by their parents, and transform their life chances by getting them off drugs, giving them decent healthcare, providing them with programmes that will reduce reoffending and, through, for the most part, the only decent education they will receive, making them employable.

Is this a fantasy? Listen to this from Angela Neustatter's new and at times properly critical book about young offenders in custody: "Many of the young I spoke with said that they were glad to have come to prison because they could not have got themselves out of the spiral of chaos and crime that they were in without being physically removed from it, in many cases detoxed, and being obliged to live in a different way."

That's very much my philosophy of what prisons can be. At the moment, however, that description realistically applies only to a minority of our places. With the modest investment I have called for, it can become much more the generality, and must become the generality for all young offenders. That is my vision for the Prison Service, and I believe passionately we can achieve it.