No way out for HM's inmates: The thousands we jail every year are deprived of the chance to reform, says a prison worker

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I WORK in one of Her Majesty's jails and I am very glad that I am not Her Majesty. I would be ashamed to think that my name was associated with the conditions I see: young men cooped up all day every day with maybe only 10 paces in the fresh air as they move from one building to the next; medical systems that are antiquated - where nearly every complaint is treated with an aspirin; buckets for toilets, and unhygienic cooking facilities that spawn regular bouts of food poisoning.

Staff are not encouraged to treat prisoners with the 'humanity and compassion' that the Home Office claims to adopt. 'Brutality and cynicism' would be a more truthful motto. Crucial to a prison officer's training is the golden rule - don't get friendly with a prisoner. The culture is to refer to inmates by their numbers and last names; the battlefield between them is rarely crossed.

'How many bodies have you got up there?' shouts one officer to another.

'It's as if we are already dead,' an inmate sighs.

These attitudes do nothing for inmates' self-esteem and only help to reinforce their sense of themselves as irredeemable criminals set apart from the rest of society.

At the same time, I become very frustrated by the way my clients frequently behave. Many spend a lot of their time stoned out of their heads in an effort to make their sentences pass more quickly. Others constantly get into fights, or run drug rackets that lead to mounting debts, put great pressures on their families, and involve nasty cases of bullying.

Commonly, inmates share the officers' sense of Them and Us, nurturing huge grudges against the 'screws' as if it is all their fault. Yet prison officers are doing only what they are trained and paid to do.

Most distressing, though, is when a few - and it is actually quite a few - of the inmates say to me that they would really like to do something about their quick tempers, or drug addiction or criminal behaviour, but don't know where to start.

Lacking in more than basic counselling skills myself, I have nowhere to refer them to. There is the state psychologist who can be wheeled in, but every word an inmate tells that official may be used in a report on his development. How can he begin to look honestly at his anger under such conditions?

Drug addicts are luckier. They have the opportunity to talk to an outside adviser in confidence. While the content of their meeting will remain private, however, the fact of its occurrence will not. They must be referred to the drug counsellor via probation, which is obliged to record that appointment and its purpose in its files. In prison everything is written down and (who knows) may well 'be used in evidence against you'. There seems to be no escape.

At the moment, the most effective education on offer in prisons is that of crime. The shoplifter, the car stealer and the bank robber have ample time to teach each other everything they know, and some use the opportunity to form 'business' partnerships that they continue once released.

It is also one of the quickest ways to become initiated into the drug scene. Inmates frequently repeat to me an old prison adage: 'If you didn't have a drug problem when you arrived in prison, you'll have one when you leave.' There is frequently little else to do. Many prisoners complain of unending boredom. Drugs offer temporary relief: 'I didn't even know what brown sugar was before I came here,' says one. 'But I thought I might as well try it - everyone does. It's something to do.'

As for the staff, a governor's reputation and prison officers' career paths depend on there being no riots and few escapes from the prison they are running. Security is top priority and, as a prison officer explained to me: 'If we didn't have drugs, we would have riots - it keeps them quiet.' No wonder known drug dealers are not searched after visits, and a blind eye is turned to the overpowering smell of cannabis on the wing.

Given that our prisons are set up primarily as places where criminals are extricated from society and deposited in one large and rather insalubrious holding place to do as they please, the most puzzling question is why we let any of them out again. Most prisoners come out of prison far more skilled criminals than they were when they went in. Surely, the answer is not to release anyone and just build more and more prisons.

The alternative - rehabilitation - is, in my experience, little more than a superficial veneer on the real business of prison. Any rehabilitative programmes that I have come across are at best tolerated and at worst viewed as subversive and possibly dangerous attacks on the prison's authority, to be dropped in favour of security at the slightest hiccup.

Effective rehabilitation requires wholehearted commitment from every part of the system. How can clients be expected to explore the most personal aspects of their behaviour, thoughts and feelings with someone whose job it is to write reports that may affect home-leave weekends and even the eventual date of release? If a governor's reputation depended on his clients' low rate of recidivism, he might be prepared to risk working towards an atmosphere of greater trust between staff and inmates. Everyone in the system needs to be motivated to work towards such an end, and undeniably a lot of money would have to be diverted to the provision of extensive counselling services.

The men I work with desperately need, and in many cases are crying out for, intensive counselling and challenging of their behaviour. This is a precious and difficult step for them. Prison is the perfect time for such a process: they can't escape; there is little to distract, and every incentive to look for ways of avoiding a return. For many, it is also the only opportunity they may have to indulge in such introspection. It is a rare man or woman that will pursue that search on release - back in a world full of the troubles that pushed them into crime.

It is very hard for anyone to change the way they behave. To look deep at yourself and the reasons for your actions is painful and unpleasant. It is one of the most punishing regimes. I have met many prisoners who are ready to embark on a process of change while they are inside. They want it, but the help is not there. They do not know where to start and there is no one to show them. - The author wishes to remain anonymous.

(Photograph omitted)