There is nothing, even in a liberal regime, that makes prison attractive

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When a nearby open prison has an open day, one's bound to go along. For all that it's easy enough for the inmates to get out, it is, after all, not that easy for the rest of us to get in.

Mind you, it's not hard to see why the prisoners at Hewell Grange, near Redditch in Worcestershire stay put. Firstly, there is the grim fact that anyone who does wander off immediately loses Category D status and returns to a nastier place. But beyond that, the chaps at the Grange really do seem to have it plush. Indeed, when I asked inmates last Saturday whether the open day extended to seeing the men's accommodation, one fellow laughed and said no. He suggested it would be a bad idea to show the public the "enhanced" accommodation available to people who behave particularly well. "En suite, every room," he said. He clearly felt that letting busy taxpayers see the rooms might produce a revolt. Most of the inhabitants do live in dormitories, but they have grander things to aspire to.

Some may feel that an open prison's regime is too easy. I rather hold to the view that the prison system ought to include the extremely tough - I understand why the Home Secretary hankers after boot camps - provided it also includes places where men can have real dignity. After all, such a system emphasises that prisoners are being invited to participate in an institutionalised version of the citizenly contract which they failed to maintain on the outside. Prove yourself a citizen of the system, and all will be well.

Hewell Grange is a perfectly hideous Victorian mansion in a vaguely Elizabethan style. It was open as part of the voyeurs' tourism of the Heritage Open Days programme, promoted by the Civic Trust and National Heritage. Last year, 4,000 people went round the house and grounds, so the experience obviously appeals. In this case, of course, one was unsure whether people had gone to see a normally closed building or a normally closed institution.

What really struck me was that the institution reminded me of others I know well. The fluorescent lighting tubes and lino in an old building reminded me of the public school I went to 30-odd years ago. And the short hair and even the surroundings reminded me of Cistercian and Carthusian monasteries. It's hard to know which of these places - prison, school or monastery - stands the best chance of reforming souls, or which I would prefer to spend a long period in.

There is nothing, even in a liberal regime, that makes prison attractive. One man told me the prisoners were treated like naughty boys by the older warders: I don't know how long I could stand that. And yet I am struck that somewhere I fear very much - HMP Pentonville - was described to me as being like a "strict boarding school" by a young roads protester who perforce knows the inside of the place. But then, he had the luxury of being a very special sort of prisoner, with whom both warders and inmates sympathised. Not, as he pointed out, that he knew, as he waited to enter it, that this would be so. He was a prisoner of conscience, and accepted as such. He was spared the sorts of informal thuggery which I fear far more than the formal aspects of any prison regime.

It might seem comical to contemplate prisoners fishing round a Capability Brown lake, as they do at Hewell Grange, but if it gentles them, and prepares lifers for the outside, how can that be bad? The men might find urban and suburban life something of a comedown afterwards, but they would at least have a good deal to aim for. And they may even realise that the richest in the land have showed appalling bad taste in the buildings with which they chose to display their more-or-less respectably-acquired wealth.