Hardwick tells prison reformers to “seize the day” at time of change

30 Mar 2016

With international and national lawmakers seemingly committed to reforming the way prisons work, those working in the sector should rise to the opportunity, says Nick Hardwick.

“Those of us who are convinced about the need for prison reform should do all we can to seize the moment and make the most progress possible,” said the former Chief Inspector of Prisons. “It would be a terrible error to stand aside, carping, for fear of disappointment.”

Speaking at his inaugural lecture as a professor at Royal Holloway’s School of Law, introduced by Professor Rosie Meek, Hardwick outlined the features of a “good prison”, while deploring the decline of the country’s penal institutions over the last decade.

During his five years as Chief Inspector, Hardwick says he grew to know the prison system “better than anyone”.  He said:

“The most intimate details of prison life are exposed to you – you smell and see and feel it. You find out about how prisoners eat, sleep, wash, use the toilet. You know about their illnesses. You hear stories of cruelty, sorrow and despair but also some of staff and prisoner kindnesses; of hope and redemption.”

Hardwick said he and his team applied four “healthy prison tests” during an inspection - safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement. He witnessed a decline in all areas, with the amount of times prisoners spent out of their cells and engaged in ‘purposeful activity’ seeing the steepest fall.

Hardwick said there was a disconnection between how the media represent prisons and the reality of conditions inside. He contrasted claims from a Daily Express article that prisoners were “playing the system” to win “once unthinkable luxuries” with photographs of cramped and dirty cells and prison grounds and statistics showing increases in self-harm, suicide and assault.

“I didn’t find any holiday camps in my visits of prisons,” he said. “My perception was that even a short period of imprisonment in the best run prison was a very severe punishment indeed.”

A deterioration in security coincided with a fall in prison staff – numbers declined by 20% from March 2010 to December 2014. But with “no realistic prospect” of money to employ new staff, Hardwick said the government should think of more creative ways to punish, including using technological monitoring, community sentences, release on temporary licence and home leave. 

“We should get away from the idea that the only way we can measure the seriousness of an offence is by the length of time the offender spends being bars,” Hardwick said. 

Hardwick’s analysis showed that the age of the institution and the degree of overcrowding made a “small difference” to its performance on inspection, but the most decisive factors were the aptitude and stability of the prison’s leadership team. In this respect, giving governors greater freedom, as has been proposed by Michael Gove, is “crucial”, he said.

“It seems that Ministers have reacted to each critical [newspaper] headline with a new set of instructions for the prison sector,” he said. “If you want to give governors more autonomy you need to lay off. There has to be some sort of understanding of when ministers should be leaving things to be determined at a local level.”

Forthcoming prison reforms, he said, should take as their guide the revised Nelson Mandela Rules, adopted by the UN in December 2015 as the minimum standard treatment for people in detention.

“[The rules are] the most important development in prison conditions worldwide for half a century”, he said. “They send a powerful statement of what prison is for and […] the principles around which a consensus of reform can be organised.”

Hardwick said that he was proud of being part of an inspectorate that had been a “key driver for change”, securing a promise of “real change for the better” in the prison system of England and Wales.

“It is possible to have a prison system by which we’d be happy to have our society judged and measured; one that treats staff and prisoners in dignity, and that becomes unthinkable to reverse,” he said.