Imagine our prisons run by Lord Forte

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I WROTE last week of the dreadful Jeremy Bentham and his private prison panopticon. Many must have assumed that it was one of Welch's tasteless japes. No, I was never more serious, I assure you.

How often, incidentally, do modern Tory 'gubus', such as private prisons, spring indirectly from the noddle of some dead or dormant lefty intellectual such as Bentham] (Gubus: Conor Cruise O'Brien's acronym for numberless stage- Irish incidents during the reign of Charlie Haughey, which were characterised by that statesman himself as 'Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unacceptable'.) As Keynes memorably put it: 'Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves

of some defunct economist.' Keynes was himself to become one of these dead economists, the academic ancestor alike of much frenzy and inflation.

Take, for instance, the plan to expel the mentally ill from institutions and decant them into 'the care of the community', ie, into space. Looks at first glance like a typical Tory wheeze to save money. Yet it actually springs intellectually from the fantasies of aberrant psychologists and trick cyclists, who long argued that men were mad because they were in institutions and not in institutions because they were mad. Some truth in this, in some cases, I don't doubt, but a crazy basis for general policy. Having fatally tempted the Tories, the enlightened, like Frankenstein, hastily distance themselves from what they themselves first dreamt up, and denounce as heartless skinflints those who have adopted it.

Last week we had another weird Tory prison gubu, the favoured brainchild presumably of generations of enlightened Howard-style prison reformers, working on Tory minds crazed alike by charters and by commercial creeds, which hold that the customer or client, or in this case the prisoner, is always right. Nothing Benthamite about it. On the contrary.

A hotel-type questionnaire is to be circulated in prisons, asking the inmates: is the food up to scratch and served at convenient times? Have prisoners enough underwear? Is the canteen well stocked? Is the prison clean enough, or too dirty, too hot, too cold, too noisy or too quiet? Are visits long and frequent enough, in pleasant and private surroundings? Are there enough telephones, baths and showers? Are 'personal officers' helpful enough? I owe all this information to an esteemed friend, Bob Porter, writing in the Sunday Telegraph.

Prisoners are bade to grade officers: easy to get on with or distant; relaxed or tense; helpful or unhelpful; interested in the prisoner or not. Even the governor is democratically assessed: fair or unfair. Supposing he loses the confidence of his electorate, is he then replaced, or is his electorate replaced? If he is replaced, what of his successors?

Will each prison become a sort of Haiti, which proudly remembers the Year of the Six Presidents? One of them was a terrifying voodoo high priest; another was torn to pieces by a mob as he tried to climb over the railings into his own palace (his thumb was until recently preserved by the Jesuits in a jar).

In the last war, the Navy took over a girls' boarding school. In the dormitories survived old notices, such as, 'To summon a mistress, press this bell.' A truly helpful personal officer might supply even this long-felt want. If not, the prisoner might ring for the obsequious governor and register a complaint.

Three relevant questions are apparently missing. Would you like a cosy bar in which to entertain your friends? Are drugs readily available at reasonable prices? Will you be glad to patronise this establishment again? The result might be a chain of prisons run not so much by Scarpia or Pizarro as by Lord Forte. An improvement? I am not a great Forte fan myself . . .

Life outside prison is pitifully hard for many poor but honest and law-abiding people. What can be their feelings on reading all this stuff? Will they view prisons with resentment and envy ('All right for some')? Will they see them as a refuge from the misery and buffets of freedom?

Will even foreign tourists, oppressed and fleeced by our grandiose and grasping hotels, weigh the merits of quickly committing a crime punished or rewarded by a nice prison sentence? Forte prisons would presumably be cheaper than Forte hotels.

In fact, only the nave will be deceived. Only the unsophisticated will enviously believe that prisons could be anything but hells on earth.

An epicene Guards subaltern was asked how he had enjoyed Dunkirk. 'Ghastly]' he drawled. 'The noise] And the people]' Just so in prisons: the real trouble is the inmates. These are still largely and disproportionately drawn from the lowest sections of society, from the most ignorant, shiftless, underprivileged, ignorant and violent. Until this is rectified, prisons will in some respects remain irreformable, and efforts to turn them into centres of high civilisation will be vain.

What is urgently required is a better class of prisoner. As elsewhere in life, quotas might be set: so many officers and gentlemen, so many dons and graduates, so many judges and senior civil servants, so many MCC members, so many clergymen, so many eminent in the arts, so many of the wise and witty, and so on. I was about to say, so many respectable businessmen, but they seem already fairly well represented. Only so shall we achieve a proper social balance in our prisons, a representative social mix.

You may object that many of the people thus to be incarcerated would be guilty of no crimes at all. A slight snag? The reformers could find ways around that. 'We are all guilty,' they cry. They are accustomed to regard crime as the product not of sin and wickedness but of social forces such as poverty and inequality. They have already largely succeeded in divorcing crime from punishment. It would be child's play for them now

to divorce punishment from crime - if it be a punishment to be sent in good company to the new, reformed prisons, serene havens of light and learning, taste and charm.

Indeed, Stalin's labour camps in Russia contained the cream of the nation: the company you found there was civilised, fascinating and uplifting. But conditions were so awful, the food so far from 'up to scratch', the personal officers so 'tense' and difficult to get on with, so 'unhelpful', to say the least of it, that few went there willingly.

In our reformed prisons, I'm sure it will be different. Indeed, were my own quota hard to fill, I might well volunteer myself to take part in the great social experiment.