Prisongate: The Shocking State of Britain’s Prisons and the Need for Visionary Change 
by David Ramsbotham.
Free Press, 267 pp., £20, October 2003, 0 7432 3884 2
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In 1995 Michael Howard, the Tory Home Secretary, dismissed Derek Lewis from his post as Director General of the Prison Service and appointed David Ramsbotham Chief Inspector of Prisons. Lewis then wrote a book about his experience – Hidden Agendas: Politics, Law and Disorder (1997) – which reflects very badly on Howard. Ramsbotham’s departure six years later was less publicly acrimonious – Jack Straw simply announced his retirement without his having agreed to it – but Prisongate will make uncomfortable reading for ministers. It is a vivid and at times idiosyncratic account expressive in equal measure of personal frustration and moral outrage. Despite differences in tone and style, the book has striking parallels with Lewis’s.

Both men were outsiders to the political and institutional world within which the Prison Service struggles to operate. Ramsbotham had already retired from the Army with the rank of general, after a career which began in 1958. Lewis had gone to business school and then into the corporate sector, to which he would return after his time in the Prison Service. This makes it the more significant that both have come to effectively the same conclusions about what is wrong with the Service and the main obstacles to putting it right.

These conclusions, as Ramsbotham observes, are by no means original: many feature in report after report going back more than twenty years; but most of their recommendations have foundered on a system which defaults to a strategy of inertia. With a lively disregard for diplomacy Ramsbotham names and shames the agents of this system while also making it clear that these people simply fulfil preprogrammed roles. Where Lewis refers to the ‘supposedly hidden, but conspicuously obvious’ agendas of ‘ministers, from Cabinet to junior, senior and well-placed junior mandarins, and political advisers’, Ramsbotham typically sums up the problem in military terms:

Who then were the enemy . . . It was not prisons, prisoners or the staff who worked in or with them. It was not Parliament. It was not the public or the media, although both would have to be convinced that the facts we reported ought to concern them as much as they did the Inspectorate.

The enemy of successful imprisonment was a triumvirate: ministers, Home Office officials and the hierarchy of the Prison Service.

As he sees it, ‘successful imprisonment’ means protecting the public in two related ways: by imprisoning the right people in the first place; and by investing in them during their sentence and after their release in order to minimise the likelihood of their reoffending. The net effect of the obstacles ‘the enemy’ places in the way of this seemingly uncontroversial goal has been that there is an absence of any long-term strategy for reaching it, still less one which is clearly understood and supported by all the relevant parties, and sustained by adequate investment, both financial and political. Instead, policy – which is almost always interested only in the short term – has been variously driven by the personal disposition of successive ministers, by politicised reactions to headlines about specific incidents, and, more recently, by the need to meet pseudo-managerial targets as though they were an end in themselves.

The origin of the problem, Ramsbotham argues, can be found in the early 1960s, when direct responsibility for running prisons was transferred from the quasi-independent Prison Commission, which had been set up in 1877, to a department of the Home Ofice headed by a civil servant. A number of developments over the last decade have exacerbated the difficulties. Each member of Ramsbotham’s triumvirate has contributed to the problems; but it is the relationship between the three that is crucial. He describes the consequences of their interaction very well; Lewis provides more insight into the factors influencing it – factors which haven’t changed or diminished since he wrote his book. On the contrary.

As Lewis reminds us, the number of people in prison began to spiral upwards under the Conservatives. The process was driven by the ‘anxious and insecure’ Michael Howard, whose ‘ambition and lack of long-term vision’, according to Lewis, meant that ‘his decision-making and policy formulation’ were ‘driven hither and thither by the breezes of media opinion and the public mood’. Alarmed by the effect of Howard’s ‘headline slogans’ on sentencing decisions, Lewis warned that we appeared to be drifting inexorably ‘towards the greater use of prisons, in circumstances that are disturbingly reminiscent of those in the United States over a decade ago’.

That is, a political rhetoric centred on punitiveness had now gained the ascendancy in Britain, too; and its influence on the criminal justice system went far beyond the impact of any new legislation or formal changes to policy and practice. According to Lewis, British prisons were already ‘bursting at the seams’ when Labour came to power in 1997 promising that things could only get better. Labour had boasted it would be ‘tough on crime’; and the consequent rise in the prison population has far exceeded the worst expectations of the late 1990s. In 1999, the Home Office was forecasting a rise to 70,000 at most by 2005, but that figure had already been exceeded by 2002, and the current projection is for a continued increase, which will take the population to more than 82,000 in 2005. Lewis had pointed out that ‘rehabilitation programmes, designed to make prisons more positive places and offer some hope of a life without crime, have suffered most’ as a result of overcrowding; and Ramsbotham shows how the possibility of doing anything useful with people while they are in prison has been progressively undermined. Even if this were not in itself a cause for concern, and the risk of breakouts and riots was the only thing that worried ministers, one would have expected alarm bells to ring. After all, overcrowding has significant implications for prison safety. In male young-offender institutions, for example, incidents of violence per 100 inmates have increased by more than a third since Labour came to power.

Total recorded crime rose throughout the 1980s; yet by the time the Opposition was reincarnating itself as New Labour in the early 1990s, it had started to drop and criminologists were scratching their heads in Britain as elsewhere. Demographic factors played a part, it seems; changing patterns of employment were also involved; and an emerging body of work began to demonstrate complex links between long-term crime trends and the economic cycle. As to the effects of sentencing policy, the Home Office’s own Research and Planning Unit had shown that a highly disproportionate and costly increase in the prison population would be needed to achieve so much as a 1 per cent reduction in recorded crime. In effect, it was almost as spurious to claim that the fall in crime was caused by the rise in imprisonment as it would have been to link it to the rise in young people’s consumption of illegal drugs over the same period.

What was New Labour to do? After all, stealing the Conservatives’ mantle as the party of law and order was an essential aspect of its makeover. One solution was to step up the Dutch auction in punitiveness. By 1995, a Tory Home Office minister is reputed to have confided to colleagues that ‘We’ve reeled them’ – the Opposition – ‘in as far as we want them and now we need to put some clear blue water between us.’ But the Labour front bench swam so doggedly after the increasingly right-wing Tory agenda that the same minister shortly afterwards passed a despairing note to a fellow member of the Parliamentary committee on the Criminal Justice Bill. ‘What can we do?’ he wrote. ‘We can’t even get them to vote against us on squatting!’

If New Labour’s promise to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ was to have any impact in a context of falling figures, however, the Party would have to widen its focus, hyping the issue beyond anything the objective facts lent themselves to. It seemed quite safe in the late 1990s to promise that crime would come down under Labour, but if crime wasn’t a problem which really exercised the voters, they might not even notice. So New Labour began to throw anti-social behaviour into the pot as well, with the Home Secretary-in-waiting famously declaring war on ‘squeegee merchants’. Once in office they rebranded their approach as a crusade against ‘yob culture’. In keeping with its managerialist image, the new Government set ambitious targets for the precise amount by which it expected police forces to reduce burglary, car crime and robbery. And it embarked on a ceaseless round of criminal justice legislation which, on one estimate, has created more than 270 new offences.

The rise in the prison population, however, is not a straightforward product of this new legislation or of anything so crude as political interference in sentencing policy; still less does it reflect any significant increase in the rate at which criminals are being caught and successfully prosecuted. It does, however, point to a spontaneous response on the part of sentencers to the political language of punitiveness. This is illustrated by the fact that magistrates’ courts have made much greater use of their power to impose custodial sentences than crown courts (where custody is more often inevitable).

In other words, ministers have not so much taken the decision to lock more people up as allowed the prison population to spiral as a consequence of their ‘tough’ posture. Inevitably, the effect has not been felt evenly across the population. Between 1997 and 2002, while the Home Office was claiming the moral high ground in exposing ‘institutional racism’, the male prison population rose by 14 per cent: but the increase for white males was only 8 per cent compared to 17 per cent for Asians and 41 per cent in the case of black men. Meanwhile – from a very much lower base – the total increase for women was a staggering 61 per cent; the number of black women in prison doubled.

Even if we leave aside the humanitarian considerations and issues of principle which are Ramsbotham’s touchstone, the additional cost of simply warehousing these offenders has made it more difficult than ever to invest in improvements on the scale which would be needed to make any significant impact on rates of reoffending. Since the mid-1990s, these have remained obstinately at just under 60 per cent for adults and over 70 per cent for young offenders. Even in the unlikely event that the Treasury could be persuaded to find the money to make a dent in this, the Government’s own position would make it difficult to invest in effective programmes to meet prisoners’ needs both in prison and on release. By reinforcing the notion that punishment rather than rehabilitation is the main purpose of prison, it has played on the public’s sense that it can be protected only by locking people up, as if this also meant throwing away the key.

While the part played by politicians in creating this impasse has been well rehearsed, the changing role over the same period of the second element of Ramsbotham’s triumvirate has received remarkably little attention. So, when the Civil Service belatedly came under the spotlight of the Hutton Inquiry, it was particularly frustrating to find media commentary relatively scant and, for the most part, surprisingly ill-informed.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s senior mandarins still believed that ministers would come and ministers would go while they went on for ever. It wasn’t just their own survival that concerned them: a tradition of public service required them to steer the ship of state safely between the posturings of the main political parties, often doing good according to their own lights, by stealth if necessary. A secondary but related responsibility was to challenge ministers when they were in danger of making a mistake which might rebound on the Government at some future date.

It infuriated Lewis in particular that at the end of the 20th century a vast and complex organisation like the Civil Service was still being run by intelligent amateurs. They would pass through its different departments at speed, learning on the job as best they could, often taking on important work in which they had no interest – and for which they might have no aptitude – simply on the grounds that it would be good for their careers. But this began to change as public sector reform, on the one hand, and tighter and tighter Treasury control, on the other, meant that civil servants, increasingly judged on measurable results, found their performance being compared unfavourably with their counterparts in a world which attached a growing premium to professional credentials. They were forced to mount a rearguard action in defence of their own power at the same time as they were assuming responsibility for handling more and larger contracts with private sector suppliers, relying increasingly on specialists within their own departments and paying ever greater sums to a growing army of management consultants. A range of time-honoured devices subtly ensured that these people could never fully penetrate the charmed inner circle, although their advice was accommodated if members of that circle thought it accorded with their own priorities. Both Lewis and Ramsbotham were to become frustratingly familiar with these devices and the way in which outsiders within government departments or closely linked to them tended to be kept in special boxes metaphorically labelled: ‘To be taken only as necessary’. (Which is how David Kelly, an internationally renowned weapons expert, could be accurately described as a ‘middle-ranking’ civil servant.)

These developments began to threaten the amateur tradition even before New Labour came to power. Privatisation and managerialism weren’t the only problems. The increasing complexity of managing the technological infrastructure of government and the services for which it was (directly and indirectly) responsible had begun to undermine the mandarins’ ability to control the system, both in principle and in practice. Many who represented the best of the Civil Service tradition saw the mounting influence of political advisers as such a threat to the integrity of the tradition that they had left by 1997.

Of those who remained, few had previously seen in a new and inexperienced government; and, in any case, their palpable relief at the Tories’ defeat meant they threw themselves into making the Project work with an enthusiasm which bordered on the naive, though professional competition and their own careers were also important. Trying to deliver for their new political masters, as well as to impress them, the Civil Service bought heavily and uncritically into the management-speak favoured by ministers and their advisers – even though, in business terms, neither side had experience of successfully managing so much as the proverbial whelk-stall. At the same time, the number and influence of these advisers eclipsed anything seen under the Tories. As a result, the convention of giving ministers both sides of an argument and challenging their more impractical or potentially dangerous whims started to look like a kamikaze exercise.

These developments were to have a direct impact on the third element of Ramsbotham’s triumvirate: the hierarchy of the Prison Service. Like many other bits of the public sector, the Prison Service was hived off from the Home Office during Mrs Thatcher’s drive to reduce the number of civil servants. In part this was achieved through privatisation, but many civil servants were simply given a different name: they were now no longer working for government but for government agencies. In many cases this left the same people in charge of a service but reduced its accountability to Parliament while duplicating aspects of its administration.

Sir Peter Lloyd, the former prisons minister, has often compared the management of Britain’s prisons to ‘running a very large chain of cheap hotels, mental institutions, remedial education establishments and industrial training units with insufficient resources when the guests, patients, pupils and trainees would all rather be somewhere else’. He might have added that the remote top management of this chain has inordinate influence while lacking any real business experience, still less any which is relevant. Despite a warning in 1991 from the former chief executive of British Aerospace, Admiral Sir Raymond Lygo, that the Service would ‘achieve the direction and unity for which successive reports have called’ only if it operated at a greater distance from the Home Office, Home Office civil servants have continued to fill its senior ranks. After Lewis’s dismissal, it seemed that no self-respecting outsider would take on the job of Director General – although ministers denied that any approach had been made, Ramsbotham records turning down an unsolicited invitation to take the post before he became Chief Inspector. Those who come up through the ranks of the Prison Service – that is, people who have worked with prisoners in prisons – seem to meet a glass ceiling. Ramsbotham leaves us to infer that in the rare event of them breaking through it, they are likely to end up emasculated by the need to prove they are civil servants at heart.

What then needs to be done? Ramsbotham’s constant refrain is that the relevant recommendations have been made again and again; what has been lacking is the political will to act on them. There are four interrelated issues that politicians must address.

First, they need to lower public expectations of what the criminal justice system can achieve in terms of reducing crime rates in the medium to long term. This will be especially difficult for ambitious Home Secretaries; but those who want to take sole credit for favourable crime figures will also bear much of the blame in the event of an unexpected rise – and they will on such occasions be tempted to resort to the statistical obfuscation which compounds public cynicism about the political process. An even more important reason to stop the obsession with crime statistics is to safeguard against any further erosion of public confidence in the criminal justice system. The system can function effectively only when people are willing to report crimes in the first place, to co-operate in their investigation and to provide witness evidence to ensure successful prosecutions. Yet social trends – especially in high crime areas – mean that such co-operation is increasingly difficult, without politicians adding to the problems.

Second, Ramsbotham makes the point that much better co-ordination is needed between the different agencies of the criminal justice system, and between the system and other relevant agencies – including education, health, social services and housing, as well as the voluntary sector. Achieving this is essential for a number of reasons. One is to ensure that the right people are sent to prison (in Ramsbotham’s view the ‘sad’ and the ‘mad’ overwhelmingly outnumber the merely ‘bad’), that they serve their sentences in conditions which make it much less likely that they will reoffend, and that they have the necessary support on release to save the investment in them from being wasted. Another reason is to ensure that offenders who don’t go to prison similarly benefit from their sentences and from continuing provision once the sentences have been served. But the main reason joined-up government must take precedence over any further accrual of power to the Home Office is that only by co-ordinating the efforts of all of the relevant agencies can those who are at greatest risk of offending be prevented from entering the system in the first place. At present, the Home Office does not have direct control over the agencies involved in the local partnerships set up by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, most of which are accountable to other government departments. Yet progress ultimately depends far more on overcoming the obstacles to their working together effectively than on the new wave of local Criminal Justice Boards currently being set up by the Home Office. Whether these eventually provide the basis for a better co-ordinated system remains to be seen: Ramsbotham argues that this responsibility should be taken away from the Home Office entirely. Instead he backs the idea of a Ministry of Justice – something the current Home Secretary seems successfully to have resisted.

Third, the criminal justice system must be given clear, overarching goals; and goals which are specific to one agency must also be mutually compatible with those of other agencies. In this context a completely new approach to performance measurement is needed, along the lines recommended in July’s report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration. Declaring himself an enemy of ‘the cult of managerialism’, which he sees as ‘inimical to the good management of people’, Ramsbotham rails against the ‘confetti of instructions . . . and the myriad targets and performance indicators’ imposed on the Service. As he points out, prisons are regularly audited and graded ‘according to exact compliance with regulations, but gradings based on exact compliance do not tell ministers – or the public – how well prisoners are being prepared for their return to the community.’ Instead, they are liable to have perverse effects as a result of the strategies which develop in order to ensure targets are met. For example, intensive drug treatment programmes exist in only 50 out of 137 prisons, and it’s not all that difficult to ensure that drug-free prisoners are disproportionately represented in the 10 per cent sample selected each month in the other 87 for ‘random’ drug testing. It isn’t that Ramsbotham fails to recognise that ‘targets and performance indicators are a useful management tool when sensibly designed and used,’ but at present, he claims, they largely fail to tell us anything about the quality of the activity which is being measured; and have ‘more to do with process in prisons than outcomes for prisoners’. The prime goal – or ‘outcome measure’ – for the criminal justice system must be to reduce reoffending rates, whether or not offenders receive custodial sentences. It would be utopian to expect to eliminate reoffending, but an adequately resourced, independent inspectorate should monitor variations in performance within the system against this aim; and in reporting on the reasons for any problems it should expect appropriate action to be taken, by central government when necessary.

Fourth, central government needs to refocus the law and order debate on the causes of crime. Underlying trends are driven by social and economic factors; and it is primarily by intervening in these areas that governments can hope to have real influence. Whether or not they can show an increase in the number of offenders caught and the proportion of these who are successfully prosecuted, little will have been gained if, sooner or later, most offend again.

Ironically, the Blair Government can already claim the credit for doing many of the things to tackle the causes of crime which Lewis was pleading for. Ramsbotham, too, despite his many criticisms and the central problem of the increased use of custodial sentences, lists many important initiatives undertaken since 1997. They include the involvement of Ofsted in inspecting provision for children in custody and the fact that in the last two years the DfES and the NHS have respectively taken over responsibility for education and health within the prison system. He does, however, insist that politicians must be more honest with the public about the fact that most prisoners will eventually be released. If ministers found the courage to resist the vigilantist pressures of the media, to face down claims that prison is a soft option, and to defend constructive activity with offenders against the accusation that this is ‘rewarding crime’, they might be able to show a measurable improvement in reoffending rates. Inasmuch as voters are prepared to trust government statistics, they might even allow themselves slowly to be convinced that a primarily punitive approach is not the best way of ensuring their own safety.

More specifically, the service needs a structure and systems which are capable of co-ordinating, evaluating and applying the lessons of the thousands of examples of good practice that Ramsbotham’s inspections discovered and which, he claims, already ‘cover all aspects of imprisonment’. An essential element of the reforms he suggests is a stronger regional focus, with better co-ordination between prisons and local agencies of the criminal justice system. Unsentenced, short and medium-term prisoners need separate provision, he argues; but each different type of prison also ‘has a different task and needs separate direction’ to ensure provision is appropriate, effective and consistent. Above all, he is asking for a Service which is adequately resourced and free to focus on its primary goal, and this can be achieved only if the efforts of ‘the vast number of splendid people’ both he and Lewis found working in prisons are supported – and the resisters weeded out. Although Ramsbotham does not include the latter among ‘the enemy’, he recounts many instances in which they seem not just to have blocked but actively reversed such progress as had been made.

This still leaves the problem of the future role of the senior Civil Service. It would be wrong to infer from either Lewis’s or Ramsbotham’s account that mandarins are redundant at best when it comes to matters of penal policy and, at worst, an obstacle to progress. The business of government and its smooth running cannot safely be left in the hands of a succession of politicians and their personal advisers – clearly no governmental or quasi-governmental service could function effectively in such a system. On the other hand, the qualities associated with the running of the Empire are no longer sufficient or appropriate. A very different and far more professional Civil Service is needed, but one which retains the best of the old traditions. As a first step, urgent measures are required to safeguard its integrity and impartiality – and, as necessary, to restore them.

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