Peter Stanford: Prisoners would not kill themselves if jails were cushy

The letters arrive with every post, from young and not so young prisoners and recently released offenders desperate to secure a college place for the autumn so that they can start rebuilding their lives. The Longford Trust offers scholarships to make this uphill struggle slightly easier and less lonely. But our resources are limited and this year we have record numbers of requests.

Opening the latest cache, many full of despair and disturbing details about physical conditions in Britain's over-crowded jails, I tuned in to Friday's Today programme. Glyn Travis, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, was busy detailing how it's such a cushy number behind bars that inmates are shipping in drugs and prostitutes at will, and turning down what is effectively an open invitation to escape. Officers, he says, have lost control of our prisons. Anyone could walk free.

These pictures of prison life are equally shocking, but they can't both be true. Who to believe – convicted criminals or law-abiding prison officers? It has to be Travis. He's our man at the coalface, paid by the taxpayer and a representative of a 35,000-strong trade union. Moreover, what he says chimes with a long-standing national stereotype, fed by TV series such as Porridge, of jails as holiday camps.

Almost 80 per cent of those under 21 who have been inside will reoffend within two years. I can't put words into Travis's mouth, but perhaps it is because life in prison is just so comfy that no sooner are you let out than you are desperate to get back in. Given that he says there are ladders propped up against the perimeter fence of HMP Everthorpe in Yorkshire, the only surprise is that ex-cons, once they're out, bother waiting to be arrested and sent back via the courts. They could just readmit themselves by climbing back in.

Which is when what he is describing begins to sound so fanciful that you can, I hope, see why I find myself veering towards believing, instead, the offenders who write about their daily battle, in the brutal, hostile world behind bars, to summon up a grain of hope of being accepted back into society. It is the seeming impossibility of ever being allowed to put their criminal past behind them, rather than the plush conditions in prison, that causes them to reoffend.

In my work with the trust, I have travelled to many prisons. I've yet to see a ladder doubling as a rear exit, or to meet anyone who has just dropped in to deliver drugs or sell sex. What I do see are endless locked doors, young men and women stuck in cells for hours on end doing nothing very useful, and grotty visiting rooms where children try to maintain some link with their incarcerated mothers and fathers.

Those who work in prison education report an acute shortage of resources and ask whether prison's designated role in tackling offending behaviour can be carried out in the present over-crowded conditions. No wonder prison suicides are up almost 40 per cent on last year.

That is a reality that does not play well with the holiday camp image. The deprivation of liberty is meant to be the punishment, not the conditions in the prison. But perhaps the only way, as a civilised society, we can justify the appalling state of many of our jails is to delude ourselves that, as Travis alleged, prisoners now enjoy "a choice of menu".

What makes his remarks most repugnant is that it is prison officers who are entrusted with looking after and rehabilitating the 82,000-plus prisoners now inside. There are some exceptionally fine and dedicated professionals trying to do precisely this. And there are the rest. Travis gives us a disturbing insight into how they see their job.

Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust www.longford