- Prisongate: The Shocking State of Britain’s Prisons and the Need for Visionary Change by David Ramsbotham
Free Press, 267 pp, £20.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 7432 3884 2
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.
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