Leading Article: Imprisoned by prejudice

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WHEN Judge Stephen Tumim, chief inspector of prisons, visited Cardiff jail, he found it infested with filth and vermin. His report, published in May, said that cockroaches were everywhere and there were rats even in the new kitchen. Prisoners were locked in their cells for prolonged periods and had to queue to 'slop out' at the prison, which was built in 1827. Michael Howard, who thinks that many jails are too comfortable, would be well-advised to reread Judge Tumim's report.

The Home Secretary is, according to a leaked memorandum, under quite a few illusions about the penal system. He thinks it is too lax and he would like a more austere regime. This is the image he plans to present at the Conservative Party conference in October. It is an image that may be convincing to the party faithful and may draw enthusiastic applause: most, like Mr Howard, have little first- hand experience of life inside. Rank-and- file Tories are angry that the Government has failed to control rising crime and want some action taken.

But Mr Howard must know that his image of this country's prisons is neither realistic nor honest. Britain still has some of the worst jails in western Europe, with their epidemic of suicides and insanitary conditions combined with inadequate work and educational opportunities. They fail to achieve their own stated aim to look after prisoners 'with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release'.

Prisons, in fact, continue to be places where punishment rather than rehabilitation seems to be the overriding concern. Mr Howard, with his appeal to populist anger, appears set on reinforcing such a punitive ethos, which has been shown repeatedly to fail in reforming prisoners. The brutalising experience of inhumane treatment in jail, far from turning out paragons of virtue, produces ex-convicts who find it difficult to break away from a life of crime. This is well-known in America, where the law and order lobby is strong and the death sentence is carried out in many states to satisfy the popular blood lust. Even there, the authorities are investing in educational, recreational and treatment programmes for prisoners as the best way of making sure that when detainees leave they do not return.

If Mr Howard pursues a policy of greater 'austerity', he will jeopardise the first signs of British prison reform in years. Since the riots in 1990 at Strangeways jail, Manchester, hesitant first steps have been made towards improving prisons. Lord Woolf produced a robust set of recommendations that were taken up in a White Paper in 1991 and require higher standards in jails and independent complaints procedures for prisoners. However, without the commitment of successive home secretaries these changes may easily fall by the wayside.

Mr Howard stands at a crossroads. He can recognise and support the compelling case for improving prisons; or he can pander to ignorant prejudice which wants to believe that jails are holiday camps and only harsh regimes will halt crime. The Home Secretary is clearly tempted to appeal to prejudice and bolster his right-wing credentials. The price of such opportunism could be more jail riots, and dehumanised inmates as wedded to crime when they are released as when they were convicted.