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Unfinished prison reform

If the Prison Service is ever to realise its full potential, what it needs, as General Sir John Learmont has said, is "minimum political involvement in the day-to-day operation of the service". As Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector, put it: "I hope that the Prison Service can be left alone to get on with its job without too much digging and poking."

The Prison Service has had a troubled history. In the Eighties it was industrial relations and overcrowding. In 1990 it was the most serious riots in its history at Strangeways and other prisons. Most recently it has been the very serious escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst.

There has been no shortage of inquiries - May, Woolf, Lygo, Woodcock and now Learmont. As a result, the service was given agency status on 1 April 1993 and I was appointed director general. It was made clear to me that the changes required in the service were of such a fundamental nature that they would take many years to complete. What was needed was a twin-track programme: first, to achieve early and significant improvements in performance across the range - security, control, regimes and efficiency; but at the same time the foundations had to be laid for long-term changes in structure and culture and to eliminate financial waste.

Our progress has been a credit to all those who work in the service. Escapes have been cut by more than 75 per cent. The public is also better protected through an 80 per cent reduction in the number of home-leave failures. There has been only one serious prison disturbance in the past three years and none in the past two. Prisoners are spending more time in better-quality work, training and education. We are doing more to protect the public by forcing prisoners to confront their criminal behaviour and change it. We have virtually eliminated the unacceptable practice of slopping out, stopped prisoners being held three to a cell and ceased the unacceptable use of police cells. At the same time we have accommodated a rise in the prison population from 40,000 to 52,000 and reduced the real cost to the taxpayer.

Those achievements have been severely marred by the escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst, which have underlined the fact that there is still much to do. Indeed, as I have said on many occasions, the task is not yet half done, but the service now has a momentum for change. If followed through with proper support I know the people I have worked with can deliver.

The Prison Service Board has clearly indicated its belief in a need for continuity. Sadly, that is not to be the case and I leave the service with great regret at a job well started but not completed. I hope we shall see over the coming years my vision come to pass of a service that is secure, safe, effective at rehabilitating offenders and efficient. And I hope that those who have this task will be allowed the freedom to see it through.

The writer was director general of the Prison Service from 1993 until yesterday.