Making bad people worse: Who's right? Michael Howard or the do-gooders? Richard North goes to prison to find out

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WHEN the Home Secretary denounced the 'do-gooders' who 'have had too much of an influence over our criminal justice system', who exactly was he talking about? I suppose he meant, to use an equally pejorative word, 'the establishment' of crime and punishment - the judges, the magistrates, the prison governors, the civil servants who know the system and how it works. They tend to think that, if a rising crime rate is bad, a rising prison population is worse. All prison does, they think, is make bad people worse.

The rest of us find this unsatisfactory. Holidays in Malaysia or wherever do not seem a proper reward for thuggery, even if it could be shown beyond doubt that the beneficiaries then became dutiful and blameless citizens. We desperately want punishment to work: we want wrongdoing reduced but we also want wrongdoers to suffer, retribution as well as reform. Mr Howard clearly wants to believe this, too. 'Let's be clear: prison works,' he told the Tory party conference last year.

Prisons certainly work for me: every time I pass Pentonville, or Wilde's Reading jail, I feel a stab of fear. But I'm hopelessly impressionable. Prison's actual customers are made of tougher stuff and return to them pretty regularly. Does this mean that jails don't work, and if so, do they need to be gentler or tougher, more kind or more cruel?

When I visited Bristol Prison, looking for an answer, I expected to be dismally thrilled by its awfulness. I found, surprisingly, an atmosphere which seemed to combine a tight ship with a hospital. It seemed, if not convivial, at least human. There are experienced prisoners who operate a 'befriending service' for those who feel overborne by their experience. The warders, now called officers, are less disgruntled than they used to be. As Bob Dixon, Bristol's Governor, said: 'The staff need to feel valued and cared for or they can't care for prisoners.'

Why bother with whether the prisoners feel cared-for? The main answer revolves round the bad, mad or sad argument. Mr Dixon says: 'Eighty-five per cent of the people in here are certainly not mad, and not particularly bad either. The vast majority make you feel: there but for the grace of God go I' And he continues: 'At the top end there are a very, very few offenders who you could almost say are evil people.'

To demonstrate the range: the day I was there, one of Mr Dixon's charges had been set up by his fellows. Count the goldfish in the garden pond, they said. Worried, he went to the most senior warder in the prison. The goldfish all looked alike and kept moving and hiding, he said. At the other end of the scale, I was shown the door of the punishment cell of a man who had poured boiling water over a warder. He had got the liquid from an urn at which most prisoners can make their own hot drinks from 8am to 8pm. 'What sort of a bloke is he?' I asked. 'You wouldn't want to know him,' said the orderly officer, and one accepted that his view was probably sound because he seemed like one of the chief petty officers on whom the armed forces depend. When such a man says of a prisoner 'he's just plain evil', only a fool thinks the judgement is lightly made.

The 'liberal' attitude of the crime and punishment establishment seems mostly based on the inappropriateness of jail for the vast majority of offenders. Judge Stephen Tumim, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, once remarked that three-quarters of the people in prison should not be there at all, and a quarter should never be let out. A magistrate told me that three-quarters of the people in front of the bench need a damn good holiday and a suitable job. The other quarter? Even professionals find themselves longing at times for the boot camp or the birch. 'Yes,' one told me. 'At times I do wish I could reach for something, something which would deter a bit more.' But then they remember that these would merely toughen the tough.

Mr Howard's remarks, though, have left the crime and punishment establishment bewildered and angry. Mary Tuck, a retired head of research at the Home Office, says that politicians can 'talk up the prison population'. When law and order are high on the political agenda, magistrates and judges tend to increase the numbers they send to jail, and the length of sentences, too. This may explain the substantial rise in the prison population last year.

Sentencing policy under the Tories has had a bumpy ride. The first Thatcher administration did not show a passion for locking people up, but the second let the prison population grow by one-sixth, to a peak of nearly 50,000 in 1988. Then there was a dramatic change of heart. The view that prison 'made bad people worse' was put at the heart of policy-making. Ministers were responding to the hard fact that more than half of released male prisoners reoffend within two years and the figure is much higher (71 per cent) for young offenders.

So the prison population slumped to just over 42,000 in January 1993. And, while the public was beset with media stories about a generation out of control, the population of young offenders in jail dropped from over 10,000 in 1981 to nearer 5,000 now.

Liberalism has not been all- conquering. Against the new, apparently 'softer' approach, there is another trend toward toughness. The number of adult prisoners serving sentences of more than four years has roughly doubled. Despite the overall drop in the jailing of young offenders, the numbers held for more than six months has increased substantially.

The message seems to be: if you commit a minor offence you are unlikely to go to jail, but beware being perceived as a serious offender, because then the key gets thrown away. And I can see the argument that, in good jails, it may be better to work with a serious offender for a settled, longish period than have him or her popping uselessly in and out.

But is prison effective? The evidence is mixed. The bad news for liberals is that the reoffending figures are only a little better for probation and other non-custodial sentences than for jail sentences. However, there is some evidence that ex-prisoners commit slightly worse crimes. And - another plus for the liberals, here - reoffending among prisoners is falling, so perhaps the generally improving conditions in prisons are working.

The clinching argument is that the whole of an average non-custodial sentence costs the taxpayer about the same (about pounds 1,000) as a fortnight of prison. So prison doesn't look very cost-effective. But, then, a Malaysian holiday or a safari would have to be incredibly cost-effective to overcome its inherent offensiveness to the public.

The public's view of what prisons can do is very different from that of most who run or send people to them. For centuries, penal policy has moved in the direction of liberal reform. By the 1950s, enlightened people were trying to make prisons places of 'treatment and training'. Ungrateful offenders kept reoffending.

Then the thinking changed. People decided that prisoners were not suitable cases for treatment. Bob Dixon echoes this philosophy. 'I don't think it's for me to know what's going on in a prisoner's mind,' he says. Besides, 'it's unrealistic to think that a few months inside is going to change a person's make-up which has taken twenty-odd years to develop'.

But if prisons can't hugely change people, what might they achieve? The Criminal Justice Act 1991 relied strongly on the idea of 'just deserts': an offender, as a responsible individual who chose to offend, has the right to suffer a sentence proportionate to his crime, but no more. The punishment was in the deprivation of liberty, which needed then to be done with as little damage to dignity and self-esteem as possible.

All this echoes the old prisoners' belief that they were 'paying their debt to society'. Do the crime, pay the penalty, go on your way: no reflection or reform required. Do modern prisoners, I asked the staff at Bristol, feel less guilt than the old lags? I was told that prisoners are quite often more aggressive than they used to be, and certainly more determined on having their rights. But the chaplain said that many men come to him and talk about guilt, though they wouldn't thank you for rubbing their noses in it.

So the thinking of the crime and punishment establishment makes a good deal of sense. Offenders will be helped to change their ways within society. If they can't make the change, society keeps a bleaker sanction up its sleeve. The policy is pretty well the one devised and effected by liberal Victorians (do-gooders, actually), and they thought it quite successful. It won't work magic of course. Even if we develop a society that has stronger families and richer employment prospects, there will still be substantial numbers of the mad, the bad and the merely sad to deal with. Prisons will still stand there, dreaded by those who need little deterrent, and accommodating many who find them no deterrent at all.

(Photograph omitted)