Too lax and too harsh The Home Secretary's hardline penal policy has led directly to riots and escape s, says Nick Cohen

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after the Birmingham Six had been released by the Court of Appeal, a reporter asked Hugh Callaghan, one of the wrongly convicted men, what it was like to sup a pint for the first time in 15 years. Callaghan laughed. A prison term didn't ne cessarily require abstinence, he said. There were plentiful, albeit intermittent, supplies of vile home-made hooch from illicit stills. The prison officers knew what was going on. But with a population of lifers to contain who had nothing to look forward to but the drudgery of prison routine, the guards looked the other way as often as not.

The tolerance of illegal brews could be turned to the authorities' advantage. Callaghan recalled how a set of keys went missing. An officer's voice crackled over the tannoy as soon as the loss was noticed. "Give back the keys, lads," he cried, "or no more hoochie." They were returned within minutes.

That is how prisons work. They are mini-societies, uglier and more brutal than most communities outside the perimeter walls, but societies none the less. There has to be give and take if a semblance of peace is to be preserved. Criminologists file this need for compromise under the label of "legitimacy". If you want peace in the prisons, then the mini-societies of men who would rather be somewhere else must be governed by fair rules which are accepted if not welcomed, they say.

But the present Government is reluctant to accept that people's behaviour is governed by anything called "society", whether on the large or small scale. Just as he cannot agree that unemployment or poverty or the promotion of the "market" might lead to higher crime rates, so Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, cannot accept that the behaviour of prisoners is affected by the social climate of jails. It is all a matter of individual responsibility, in his view. The purpose of prison is to deter and to punish. He believes, rightly or wrongly, that this will reduce crime and comfort its victims. He expects all this to be achieved without consequences for the prisons themselves.

We are seeing the consequences now, however. Riots, like those at Everthorpe last week, may seem an obvious result of too illiberal a regime. The escapes from Whitemoor and, now, from Parkhurst may, by contrast, seem the result of too much liberalism, oftoo many prison governors, criminologists and psychologists trapped in the "namby-pamby" outlook of the 1960s. The reality is that riots and escapes are two sides of the same coin: prisons are having to cope with sudden and dramatic change, brought about by the Conservative Party's need to appear tough rather than by any properly thought-out policy.

During Mr Howard's spell at the Home Office, every aspect of prison life has been tightened. Home leave has been curtailed. Television in cells, which has the advantage of keeping prisoners quiet, has been ruled out. This year, compulsory drug testing will be introduced along with tighter controls on the property prisoners can keep and the visits they can receive. As a result of the hardline rhetoric, and changes in the law which led to courts being able to take account of previous convictions, the jailpopulation has gone up from 40,000 to 50,000. The British prison system has seen nothing like it since the wholesale internment of aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.

Mr Howard might usefully have offered prison governors more guards as a precaution. Instead, in a speech to the Prison Service in Solihull in November, he said: "The message I want to leave you with . . . is that the service will be on the right track ifyou constantly keep in mind that it is the public you serve - not prisoners, not their families, not the special interest groups."

But prison officers and governors do not have to cope in their daily work with the public. They have to cope with prisoners. Their priorities are, first, that they behave well in prison and, second, that they behave well when they leave. Home leave is anincentive for prisoners to behave well in jail. It also encourages them to maintain links with their families and, possibly, to find future jobs, thus laying the foundations for "going straight" on release.

Prisoners understand all this perfectly well. Most of them are young and poorly educated. But they follow the news like anybody else and they know when a Home Secretary is talking about making life hard for them. And they do not need academics to tell them about concepts of legitimacy: they have quite strong, almost legalistic ideas about how they should be treated.

"I've never used any violence," wrote one to the Prison Reform Trust in the very week that Mr Howard was speaking at Solihull. "But I think if Howard continues with his policies he could well have another Strangeways." "How am I supposed to integrate back into society?" asked another. "There is already talk that the prisons are going to riot. I don't want to be caught up in that. Violence will get worse. Drugs will get worse. What kind of rehabilitation is that?" "If Howard has his way we will all be onbread and water,'' wrote a third.

Last week prison officers at Everthorpe insisted that Mr Howard's policies were partly to blame. One reason for the trouble, the local Prison Officers' Association said, was the threat of privatisation, which had made staff fearful for their future. Another was the growing number of serious offenders, with which the jail was not designed to cope. As a result of the national cell shortage the Humberside prison was taking inmates from all over the North of England. Yet the central recommendation of Lord Justice Woolf's report in 1991 on the future of jails was that the best hope of maintaining order was to keep inmates close to their homes.

This is a direct example of how confusion in government policy has caused problems for the prisons. But it goes wider than that. Before Mr Howard arrived, Lord Woolf and Kenneth Baker, Home Secretary until 1992, had already set out a reform programme which would, for example, place limits on overcrowding and ensure that prisoners' grievances were handled by an impartial complaints system. Security is now endangered because governors do not know whether they are meant to follow this programme, which has never been officially repudiated by ministers, or Michael Howard's hardline speeches. The report into the Whitemoor IRA breakout showed that the confusion about what to do in the Cambridgeshire jail was so deep that virtually every single rule and precaution designed to prevent escapes was ignored.

In truth there need be no contradiction between humane prison conditions and good security. Most governors believe that liberal conditions actually promote security.

Prisoners who have incentives to behave and are encouraged to turn away from crime by a prison system which develops their links with the society outside the jail walls are more likely to co-operate with the authorities and inform on troublemakers. Lifers with no hope of early release because Mr Howard has arbitrarily increased their sentences are more likely to try to escape.

Just as the distinction between a humane regime and a secure regime is a false one, so is that between policy and operation in prisons. The latest disasters in the prison system do not require Mr Howard to resign, we are assured, because the Home Secretary is responsible only for policy failures while Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, is responsible for operations. Just where policy ends and operations begin is an issue obscure enough to baffle a college of Jesuits and the predictable result is that both men have survived.

In this instance, there is no distinction. Mr Howard's policies have affected the operation of the prisons. Mr Lewis is in charge of operations because he is sympathetic to Conservative approaches. He is from private industry (the television and motorwayservice station businesses) and believes wholeheartedly in privatising jails. If he were not running the prisons, he would be chairing a health service trust or a training and enterprise quango.

Between them Mr Howard and Mr Lewis have lowered morale and produced the paradoxical position where an almost paralysed prison system is simultaneously too lax and too harsh. Hugh Callaghan, who has spent time inside a prison, would probably do a better job.