Matthew Norman: So, Gordon, do you believe prison works?

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The Independent Online

It is a strange and unsettling fact of political life that even now, 10 years after he unofficially took control of domestic policy, and two months after that role become official, we haven't the first idea what Gordon Brown believes about virtually anything beyond the confines of economics.

Thanks to his natural reticence and a leadership coronation that allowed him to indulge it, his thoughts on the penal system, as on other vexing social issues, remain private. Is he instinctively a reformer or a sustainer of the status quo? Does he agree with Michael Howard and his male Labour successors as Home Secretary that "prison works", or with the Howard League for Penal Reform (definitely no relation) and almost every other expert voice that it most certainly does not?

Is he, in the Porridge terms that subliminally colour the attitude towards prison life of those of us without direct experience, a disciplinarian Mr McKay or a sympathetic Mr Barrowclough?

We have no evidence on which to judge, as I say, because Gordon's philosophical musings on the matter have been limited to claiming ownership, via unnamed friends, of that resonant yet classically vapid Blairite catchphrase "Tough on crime, tough on the causes...". So the prison officers' wildcat strike that imbued Wednesday with such a deliciously nostalgic flavour offers the Father of the Nation a golden opportunity to share with us, his bemused and needy children, the workings of his colossal mind. Thus far at least, his response has been predictable and dismal.

Gifted an opening to share his thinking on penal policy, Gordon took instant refuge in the comforting blanket of stark economics. Staging pay awards such as the notional 2.5 per cent rise the Prison Officers Association insist is little more than half that because of its staggered implementation is, intoned the PM, an essential part of "controlling inflation" and "maintaining discipline in the economy".

Perhaps it is. Perhaps restricting the average-earning prison officer to an extra £8 a week, rather than about £12, is a more potent anti-inflationary weapon than capping or supertaxing the bonuses that allow City types to splurge on Maseratis and Holland Park houses with their loose change. Gordon knows more about this than anyone, and cannot lightly be gainsaid.

As to whether the officers deserve the sort of above-inflation hikes that would bring them into line with other public-sector employees, this isn't clear cut. Thankfully few of us ever come into direct contact with them, as we do with police and nurses, so our perceptions tend towards the one sided. The impression from gruesome news stories, such as the murder of the Asian boy placed in a cell with a known psychotic racist at Feltham, is of active or passive sadists with little training and less interest in rehabilitation.

Television and cinema drama from across the Anglophone world (Bad Girls, Prisoner Cell Block H, The Shawshank Redemption and so on) reinforces this unlovely image. But the anecdotal evidence from acquaintances who've spent time as Her Britannic Majesty's house guests paints a more balanced portrait of people, many well meaning and others not, doing a tough, tedious and thoroughly disregarded job under conditions that become more pressurised as the prison population inexorably grows. Albeit the resentment at being asked to accept a de facto pay cut while working harder lies at its heart, the POA's newly discovered militancy is about more than money. The same despair that swiftly subsumes every new Chief Inspector of Prisons informs the feelings of those at the front line, and no wonder. Suicide figures are rising, reoffending rates are monstrous, and ever-more intense overcrowding reduces the efficacy of largely wretched educational and retraining facilities and provokes ever more assaults on officers. Small surprise that these men and women have lost control of their resentment.

That the penal system is both a national scandal and a paradigm of illogic is obvious to all but those who write and read those papers that believe the sane solution is to build more prisons and bang more people up in them for longer in the vilest conditions. The problem, as ever, is that these are the very people who dominate the debate and control what passes for government thinking.

In the absence of guidance from the man himself this is pure guesswork, but I cannot believe for an instant that Gordon Brown – a far more civilised man than his predecessor – has not read widely and deeply on the subject, and concluded that the Dutch and Scandivanian approach isn't just more humane than the American, but infinitely more economically sensible as well; that paying £38,000 per annum to lock up someone who presents no violent threat is best avoided; and that tolerating reoffending rates of 60 per cent for adult inmates, and 75 per cent for juveniles, is a blatant abrogation of his moral and fiscal responsibilities.

If so, the only conceivable reason why he'd be unwilling to say so is – what else? – that familiar terror of the screechingly hysterical, shock-jock, tabloid press that has cowed progressive opinion in Britain for the past quarter century.

If David Cameron has concluded he has nowhere to go in search of power but sharply to the right, that is his business. I can't imagine it will work, but given his authorship of the 2005 Tory manifesto that centred almost exclusively on the three areas to which he has now returned (tax cuts, immigration and law and order), he can at least claim to be speaking from the heart again after that brief, synthetic flirtation with centrist politics.

From Gordon, we should demand the same candour. If he genuinely believes that prison works, he must explain why. If, on the other hand, he agrees with the 57 per cent who this week told a polling company they favour non-custodial sentences where possible, let him say so and set out some embryonic plans to reform this crazily Victorian penal system that betrays everyone who pays taxes and suffers from avoidable crime along with prison officers and, above all, inmates.

Tony Blair came to power with enormous goodwill, and squandered a glorious chance radically to improve this country primarily because his morbid fear of the nastier newspapers dwarfed his faith in the fundamental decency and good sense of the electorate. Gordon Brown's reaction to the prison officers' strike and the horrendous underlying problems it highlights will give us a pretty shrewd idea whether what we are about to hear from him, if and when he finally locates his voicebox, is the tragi-farcical sound of history repeating itself.

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