A former prison governor's indictment of life inside Britain's jails deserves to be widely read
We rarely hear from prison governors, partly because they have their hands full dealing with the record 88,000 inmates that an unholy alliance of public opinion and politicians consign to their care, but also because their Whitehall bosses at the National Offender Management Service (Noms) actively discourage them from speaking up for fear of what they may say. That, at least, is the contention of John Podmore, who in his time has been governor of Belmarsh and Brixton (which he transformed from the worst performing prison in the UK estate to one of the best), an inspector of prisons and, latterly, a senior official at Noms dealing with corruption in our jails.
In 2010, senior managers reacted to Podmore's contention that prisons were awash with drugs, illicit mobile phones and officers on the take by closing down his anti-corruption unit and making him redundant. If no one mentions the problem, the logic seems to go, it doesn't exist. Podmore is not, however, a man to be easily silenced. When he ran Brixton, he infuriated his Whitehall minders by agreeing to do an interview with the lads' mag FHM. His argument, then as now, was that if we have an open, national debate about the state of our prisons, then they will improve.
And frankly, as he sets out in Out of Sight, Out of Mind, there is plenty of room for improvement. A good two-thirds of those who cost ?41,000 per year to incarcerate emerge from jail to reoffend within two years. Not good for them, but more importantly not good for the rest of us who will be their next victims.
Such a failure rate in any other area of our public services would cause alarm, but in the case of prisons it is calmly accepted. Kenneth Clarke, when first appointed as justice secretary, was unusual in his willingness to grasp the nettle by promising a "rehabilitation revolution", but has since been ground down to the point where his only significant remaining policy is to introduce private contractors not just to new-build prisons, as is already the case, but also to existing jails. This, Podmore warns, will mean the state entrusting responsibility for some of its most damaged, vulnerable and dangerous citizens to profit-making companies. Shareholder dividends, he suggests, will be created by cutting the pay and conditions of already poorly remunerated and often minimally trained prison officers. Another incentive to corruption, he adds sadly.
Despite our addiction as a society to incarceration, few of us have ever seen inside a prison. I recently accompanied a headteacher on her first jail visit. In a long and distinguished career, she had experienced many social problems at first hand, but was deeply disturbed by the degrading, dismal, dispiriting world she encountered. Was this really the best we could manage, she asked? No, says Podmore in this important book.
Part engaging memoir, part history of how we have got to this point, but always written with humour, pace and well-turned sentences, Out of Sight, Out of Mind not only pinpoints the problems, it offers solutions. In the former category, the picture it paints of institutional failure at Noms is damning. It is in denial, Podmore argues from the inside, about the extent of drug use in prison, clinging like glue to the results of its mandatory drug testing of prisoners when everyone, including many within Noms itself, knows the figures are fiddled. A simple liver tablet, available over the counter in any chemist, enables most addict inmates to test as clean.
Podmore's recipe for change will not come as a surprise to those interested in prison reform ? more community sentences, more emphasis on rehabilitation, more support in the transition around release from institutionalisation to independence ? but his plea for individual governors to be given their head is new and heartfelt. If politicians and public started listening to those who deal daily with prisoners, we could hardly do worse than we are right now.
Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust for prison reform