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Prison Talk

3rd April 2021


Declan Henry

An Interview with Nick Hardwick CBE, Chief Inspector of Prisons
Declan Henry – Social Worker and Author

Nick Hardwick was appointed the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2010. He has had an impressive career to date. Prior to his current role, he was the Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission for eight years and oversaw one of the most controversial investigations in police history, the shooting of Brazilian civilian Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station in 2005. Before that he was the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council for eight years after having been the Chief Executive of the Centrepoint charity for nine years. What I liked most about him during our interview was his ability to reflect before answering my questions. His passion for justice is evident in the integrity and openness of his responses. His interest in classical and historical novels, from Charles Dickens to Hilary Mantel, is noteworthy. His favourite book is Oliver Twist because he relates to how Dickens exposed the social conditions of his time. Perhaps Dickens was a man like himself – someone who could understand injustice and had a desire to highlight it? He is entering the arena of the Prison Service at a time of great controversy and change. Unfortunately, the media portray prisons in this country as ‘luxurious’ and question why the guiding principle of incarceration does not entail a measure of hardship over and above the withdrawing of liberty. Ministers call for reforms to be put into place that will ensure prisons become effective places of rehabilitation and punishment rather than ‘warehouses’ for re-offending because at the moment, the high rate of recidivism is deeply worrying. So it was with these points in mind that I set off to interview Nick at his office in central London.

First of all, tell me about the remit of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. What exactly is your role?

The inspectorate is responsible for checking the standard of care, treatment and conditions for prisoners in closed and open prisons, young offender institutes as well as police and military custodial settings. We also inspect immigration removal centres and private prisons. Three-quarters of visits are unannounced with the inspectorate having complete access to every area and being able to speak to every prisoner and staff member. The main aim of inspections is to check for high standards in key areas, e.g. how safe are prisoners, is there bullying and to see if adequate safeguards are in place that deals effectively with vulnerable prisoners who self-harm or attempt suicide. We look at levels of respect and dignity between prisoners and staff, ensure they have access to appropriate dress, and see if prisoners are engaged in purposeful activity. We also look at resettlement and the measures in place to facilitate successful transition back into the community – suitable accommodation, access to substance-misuse treatment and training and employment.

The government want to reduce the number of prisoners. Is this an indication that prisons fail to rehabilitate or are too costly to sustain, bearing in mind that the figures have increased from over 40,000 in 1985 to well over 85,000 in 2010?

If we cannot cut crime itself in half, we need to be sure that we are twice as safe with the number of prisons we have at present. Or, the opposite, crime is twice as bad because of the number of prisoners being released from a system that does not work. It can’t be sensible to turn people out of prison who are more likely to commit offences than when they went in. The present system works to an extent because dangerous criminals are unable to commit crime as long as they are incarcerated and their victims feel safer. But we are not in a situation in this country where we can honestly say that people who leave prison are less likely to commit crime.

What resources need to be in place in order to assist successful rehabilitation and improve poor public confidence?

Prisoners need to be engaged in daily work patterns considered purposeful, because being active and working in a structured environment with a schedule will bring about new-found skills that will increase their self-respect. Common sense tells you that a large majority of prisoners will have literacy problems, drug issues, nowhere to live after they are released, no skills for employment, and broken family contacts. It is no good placing prisoners a long way from their homes and families and this risks happening if prison numbers are reduced. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on maintaining family relationships. The government green paper on resettlement, Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offender, is promising because it allows proper consultation on sentencing and rehabilitation to take place based on evidence of what works within the parameters of risk and security.

Society has raised its eyebrows in recent months over riots in open prisons and at young offender institutes. Does this curtail plans for more open-style prisons and/or early release?

Society has high expectations of the criminal justice system – but it needs to realise that not everyone is a category ‘A’ prisoner. It is impossible to eliminate all risk. A more thoughtful discussion needs to take place and society needs to own some of this risk. Drugs and alcohol in prisons shock me. I want it answered why the free flow in some prisons can not be better controlled. There are good treatment programmes available in prisons. Staff numbers may need to be increased in some open prisons but in addition to security, prison staffs have to maintain proper respectful relationships with inmates. Why does conflict escalate when it occurs? If authority is respected and prisoners are engaged in meaningful activities there are better chances of them behaving? Releasing prisoners’ needs to be a staged process and if prisoners abuse this process then they will have to return to closed prisons.

There are currently over 11,000 foreign nationals serving prison sentences in the UK – the highest numbers coming from Jamaica, Nigeria and Ireland. Philip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering suggested that the government could save £460 million a year by sending prisoners back to serve their sentences in their country of origin. What is your opinion on this?

This is not a straightforward matter of just sending people back to their country of origin. If that was the case the over-riding question would be to ask if they are being punished twice. Some will have built their lives in this country and lived here all their lives. We cannot be over rigid and must think about the broader picture including the problems associated with prisoners breaking off contact with their families.

There has been a ban on prisoners voting since 1870. Do you think prisoners should be allowed to vote?

Yes, I do. The European Court of Human Rights is on the right track with this issue. Prisoners serving life will still be banned but those serving less than four years should be allowed to vote. If we are to have high expectations of prisoners then we can show it by encouraging them to have a stake in society, this is one way of showing it, but I must add that I have never experienced a prisoner coming up to me on one of my visits and telling me that it was a problem that they weren’t allowed to vote.

The media portrayal of prison officers is sometimes unfavourable, e.g. inadequate training and expertise, poor pay and low staff morale. Does your inspectorate take into consideration the selection process and training of prison officers?

This is not something the inspectorate currently looks at. But I think it is wrong to make generalisations. There are a lot of vulnerable people in prison who self-harm. I have seen first-hand the support that officers give to large groups of very needy female prisoners. Their work is not easy and requires great empathy and dedication.

The criminal justice system sometimes fails to protect vulnerable people. Do you think special provisions should be made for people in prison with mental health problems?

There has been a major improvement addressing the health needs of prisoners since the NHS took over two-three years ago. But there is still a long way to go. It is a little like Care in the Community when the asylums closed. There were not adequate provisions in the community which meant some people ended up homeless on the streets. People with mental health problems get sectioned and end up in prison. Also people with learning difficulties find it hard to cope. Staff are at their wits’ end not knowing what to do with them. These are not simple things to solve but we need to definitely strive to divert people with mental health needs away from prison.

For every crime committed there is a victim. How do you feel victims will feel if prison numbers are significantly reduced over the next few years? Will the impact of this leave them feeling let down by the criminal justice system?

Complainants of crime feel let down when they are not dealt with effectively. They need an explanation of why the incident happened. They want it to be formally recognised that wrong was done to them personally and is unacceptable. They want to know about the programmes prisoners do whilst in prison. Victims often incur financial loss and need recompense. Additionally, it is important to ask victims what they would like to be done. Are they willing to accept a letter of apology or receive compensation taken from an inmate’s prison allowance as a means of addressing the harm that was done?

Whether people wish to acknowledge it or not, prisoners have sex with one another. Therefore, should they be allowed condoms to help prevent STDs and HIV?

Yes. However, there is a moral perspective to this and faiths of prisoners have to be taken into account. But we have to move with the world and accept that sex occurs in prisons.

Finally, what is your vision for the future of the Prison Service?

I wish for a better informed and knowledgeable debate based on facts and for the public to know that prison is real discipline, not a holiday camp. I hope to see the day when re-offending will be less likely after prisoners are released. Punishment and rehabilitation need to be entwined but it is our job to make sure this is the case by having structured programmes of rehabilitation in place. Additionally safety needs to be a prime and manageable issue and central to the ethos of prison life.

Declan Henry ©2011

In March 1898, Oscar Wilde wrote to the News Chronicle about the treatment of Prisoners: It is enough that punishment is loss of liberty but imprisonment should not mean that a prisoner is stripped of intellectual rights, isolated from society, and censored in thought and deed.

As a writer, I try to incorporate both sides of humanity into my writing, having learned that life is far from grim and that there is enough kindness, compassion, love and humour to overcome life’s obstacles, regardless of how much misery, abuse, or injustice exists.
Written by Declan Henry


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