UK: As head of prisons for England and Wales, Martin Narey tried to improve life for people on the inside. One of those inmates was Erwin James, then serving a life sentence. Now, as Narey leaves his job after a career spanning three decades, the two men meet and discuss the many problems still facing Britain's jails.
'Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee?" I'm sitting at a small conference table at the back of Martin Narey's bright and spacious office in the heart of the new Home Office in London. Narey, wearing a smart striped shirt and matching tie, is friendly and courteous, almost disconcertingly so.
"Er, coffee please," I say.
Though this is the first time we have met, Martin Narey and I go back a long way. He joined the prison service as a fast-track prison governor in 1982. Two years later, I was sentenced to life. It would have been impossible to believe then that one day I would make this visit as a journalist or that the man with overall responsibility for all the prisons in England and Wales, second only to the home secretary, would be making me a cup of coffee.
As he makes my drink, I glance around at the pictures on his walls. Most are photographs, taken during his career, but pride of place goes to a huge painting on canvas. "That won first prize at the Koestlers," he explains as he hands me my mug of coffee. The Koestler Awards is a national arts competition held annually for prisoners and patients of special hospitals. The picture is of a group of prisoners and visitors facing each other across a row of tables. I would guess it acts as a reminder of the essential meaning of prison to all who enter the room. "Judge Stephen Tumin bought it and presented it to me as a gift," says Narey. "It will be going with me when I leave."
After a career in the prison service that has spanned three decades, Narey will soon be hanging his painting in a different office. Appointed as chief executive of the children's charity Barnardo's, his new post will be added to a heady list of career achievements - director general of the prison service, honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University, gold medal from the Chartered Management Institute, permanent secretary and first ever chief executive of the merged probation and prison service (the National Offender Management Service , or Noms). Narey has been responsible for a budget of several billion pounds, a staff of around 50,000 and the lives of more than 77,500 prisoners. Not bad for a boy who was one of nine children born to working-class parents and who describes himself as having been a "waster" at the Middlesbrough comprehensive where he got "absolutely crap" A-levels.
That Narey should come across as a decent bloke is appropriate, given he is the man who introduced the "decency agenda" into prisons. I remember well his speech to a prison service conference in 2001 when he threatened to resign as director general because he was "not prepared to continue to apologise for failing prison after failing prison". It was the first time during my 20 years inside that I had heard someone at the top acknowledge that the prison experience could be deeply harmful to prisoners. From the distance of a prison landing it was hard to tell how sincere he was, but it sounded good and generated new hope for a lot of people inside.
Ever since the Conservative government largely ignored the recommendations of the Woolf report into the Strangeways riot in 1990, it seemed to those inside that prisons had been neglected by those in power. Over the years, I saw how overuse and limited investment kept the prison system from ever achieving any significant positive impact on the lives of most of those in its custody. Here, it appeared, was someone who wanted to change things. He was motivated by what he saw when he first joined the prison service and had to work on the landings of Lincoln prison as a uniformed officer.
"Lincoln stank," he says. "It was filthy, overcrowded, three to a cell slopping out. I saw prisoners in the segregation unit routinely slapped, it was constant low-level abuse. It was a horrible, horrible place. If you wanted to do any good you had to do it by stealth. The POA [Prison Officers' Association] ran the place. Assistant governors were derided. I can remember getting a real load of abuse for being seen carrying a Guardian."
Beyond having the wrong type of newspaper under his arm, Narey has rarely been seen to make mistakes. But the latest figures again show prisons holding record numbers and the system stretching to bursting. How does he feel about that? "If I've got one regret as I leave this job after seven years, it's that this morning 16,000 men woke up in prison conditions which are simply gross. Overcrowding just saps away any good we might be able to do. My personal view is that we do not need to lock up 77,000 people." He looks at the tape recorder and says emphatically: "Although I possibly did everything I could to make prisons better places, the fundamental problem is that we lock up too many. We have to reduce the prison population."
This is not what Charles Clarke is saying. While, as home secretary, David Blunkett had planned to cap prison numbers at 80,000, his successor has said there is no need. Narey announced his resignation as Noms chief last July - is a lack of warmth between him and Clarke the reason he is leaving? "Not at all," he says, "Charles and I had a glass of wine just the other night."
With so much going against it, then, is he of the view that prison doesn't work? "Well, it's unfashionable to say it, but I still think that in the right circumstances, it can work. It can be a refuge from drug abuse. It can give people a chance to get their lives in order. If someone has to go to prison, if we can take them in, give them some education, demonstrate to them that they are not stupid, make them employable. And then if we can perhaps find them a job and a home, I think that could change some lives for the better."
What about children in prison? "I think we lock up ludicrous numbers of children in this country, nearly 3,000. If we could conceive of children's prisons, not as prisons but as secure colleges, and see them as a residential experience where we could concentrate on the individual and try to sort their lives out, then they might go out with a chance."
Narey's tenure as head of prisons has not been without controversy. In 2002 he was accused of treating Jeffrey Archer unfairly when he ordered him back to a closed prison after the former peer had attended a dinner party while on a community visit. "Archer behaved appallingly," he says when I remind him. "I defended the fact that we let him go to his mother's funeral un-cuffed and again later when we let him work at the Theatre Royal from his open prison."
His attitude changed when Archer was photographed in an Italian restaurant having lunch with a prison officer and a police officer. The next day the prison officer resigned, after 30 years of service. "I believe Jeffrey Archer invited that photographer to get a story to help publicise his book," he says, "and in doing so wasted the career of a good officer."
I ask about the special powers invoked to prevent Maxine Carr, the former girlfriend of the Soham killer, Ian Huntley, from being released on an electronic tag. Was that fair? "Carr was treated appallingly in relation to anyone else who might have committed the same crime," he says. "But if we had let her out using home- detention curfew, there was a danger that it would gravely have undermined public confidence in it. We let out over 100,000 people on HDC and we've got to have the public's backing. I spent a lot of time worrying about the press reaction to her release. Her own release plan was breathtakingly naive. She was planning to go and live with a relative. By the time she was released we had managed to find her a safer place."
Preventing prison suicides has been one of Martin Narey's preoccupations over the last few years. He thought in-cell television would reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths in prison but sadly that has not been the case. The rate of such deaths remains at an average of around two per week. Last year's total equalled the previous record of 95.
I ask him how he felt about David Blunkett's comment that he was going to "crack open a bottle of champagne" when Harold Shipman was found hanged in his cell in 2004. "I was distressed and terribly disappointed. I don't think he honestly meant it, but it was a shocking, dreadful thing to say."
Will he feel liberated when he leaves this office for the last time? "At the moment I'm feeling a little sad. Every day brings messages from people wishing me well, including from ex-prisoners," he says, nodding at the cards littering his desk. "Look," he says, "I've been doing this for 23 years. It's seven years since I became DG; no one has done the job for that long. I start at 6am and I'm rarely home before 8.30pm to 9pm. Despite my haggard appearance, I'm only 50. I can't do this for another 10 years so I'm going to do something very different."
So that's a yes, then? "Yes, it will free me up a little. You can't be in this job and not support the home secretary. You work for politicians. That's the deal. We have a civil service that has to serve the government of the day. And yes, that means that I have to argue and justify things with which I haven't always agreed, and I don't have to do that anymore.
By Erwin James posted 31 October 05
Prison officers responsible for smuggling into jails
Fresh Home Office research also confirmed the extent of abuse in prisons yesterday, and suggested that prison staff were one route for drugs to get in. The study found that smuggling by uniformed or civilian staff was thought to be "substantially increasing" the availability of heroin and cannabis behind bars.
Plea to release Biggs rejected by ruling-class
UK: Home Secretary Charles Clarke has rejected a plea by Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs to be released from prison on compassionate grounds.
Prisons chief hits at 'gross' overcrowding
Martin Narey, a civil servant who has served every Home Secretary since 1989, highlights statistics showing that thousands of mentally ill inmates and a record number of children now constitute a significant part of the prison population.
Clarke faces a fight over probation overhaul
UK: The home secretary, Charles Clarke, yesterday confirmed his plans to abolish 42 local probation boards and instead create "a vibrant mixed economy" in the management of 200,000 offenders in the community.
The devilish advocate
UK: The devilish advocate John Hirst taught himself law in jail, and has never lost a case against the prison service. Erwin James meets up again with the former 'lifer' who won inmates the right to vote.
Racism still rife in jails, five years after the murder of Zahid Mubarek UK: The prison service will be strongly criticised for continued racial discrimination against ethnic minority inmates by the official report from the Zahid Mubarek inquiry.
UK prisoners should get vote, European court rules
UK: Laws setting out who can and cannot take part in elections are to be rewritten after the European court of human rights today ruled in favour of giving British prisoners the right to vote.
Prison plan 'will cut reoffending'
UK: A network of community prisons to help cut the number of criminals who re-offend has been outlined by Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
Clarke to scrap plan to peg prison numbers
UK: The home secretary, Charles Clarke, has said he is to abandon his predecessor's aspiration of pegging the prison population in England and Wales at 80,000. He will also drop plans to put a legal obligation on the judges' sentencing guidelines council to take the size of the prison population - currently 77,000 and rising - into account when laying down the "going rate" for major crimes.
Crowded jails 'boosting suicides'
UK: The chief inspector of prisons warned that an overcrowding crisis in Britain's jails was leading to an increase in prisoner suicides.
Chief justice calls for new approach to law and order
UK: The retiring [ruling class] lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, made a passionate plea for a new approach to law and order which would see a major shift away from punishment towards the solution of problems which generate crime.
Britain's only prison ship ends up on the beach
UK: The last inmates have departed and a skeleton staff is left guarding Britain's only prison ship - in case anyone is minded to break in rather than out.
Throw away the key
The one profession to get results on recidivism has been sacrificed to Labour's desire to lock up criminals in private prisons.
Judges' misdeeds will remain secret
UK: Judges who are disciplined for bad behaviour will not have the findings against them made public under a complaints regime to be launched next year.
Prisoner total rises 15% in six years
England and Wales are continuing to jail offenders at a higher rate than any other major country in western Europe, it emerged today. New research indicates that the government's use of prison as its main tool of penal policy has increased by 15% since 1999.
CPS drops prosecution over death in custody
UK: The family of Roger Sylvester, who died after being restrained by police officers, yesterday expressed their disappointment at a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute any of the officers involved.
Prisoner's cell death
UK: A prisoner was found hanged in his cell last week, the Home Office said, fuelling criticism over the soaring number of suicides in custody.
Plans for five new 'superprisons'
Recent figures show a total of 75,550 prisoners were held in 139 jails in England and Wales, nudging up the previous record of April 2004 by just six inmates.
Prison has lost its way - report
UK: Bristol prison is suffering wide-ranging problems because of inconsistent management, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.
Row over acupuncture for prisoners
UK: The Home Office has responded to criticism over prison inmates who are being offered acupuncture on the NHS in order to relieve stress.
Number of prisoners sent back to jail trebles
UK: The number of prisoners being sent back to jail after release has nearly trebled in the past five years, according to a report published today.
Top judge says crowded prisons cannot break cycle of crime
UK: Reoffending rates after a prison sentence are at an "unacceptably high level" and the failure of the criminal justice system to stop prisoners reoffending should shock the public, England's top judge, [Ruling Class] Lord Woolf, said last week.
All the World's a Prison: History
No doubt many of my readers, even those who are well-educated or widely read, think that the prison -- the place where dark deeds are darkly answered -- is an ancient institution, a barbaric hold-over from barbaric times. In fact, the prison is of relatively recent origin, and this tells us a great deal about the pretentions and realities of modern times, and the wisdom and high degree of development of the ancients.
Decade after inspector left in disgust, report tells of filth
UK: Dirty, mice-infested cells, high levels of self-harm, and widespread bullying over drugs and medications were just some of the damning findings of a report into conditions at Holloway, Britain's largest women's prison.
Most women 'should not be jailed'
Women make up 6% of the prison population in England and Wales. Imprisonment of women should be "virtually abolished", a prison reform group has said.
Youth 'murdered for officers' pleasure'
UK: An Asian teenager was murdered by a white racist after they were placed in the same cell as part of a game to fulfil the "perverted pleasure" of prison officers, a public inquiry heard on Friday.
Deaths in isolation as prison segregation increases
The use of segregation [solitary confinement] of prisoners as punishment has been increasing recently in Australia, the US, and the UK. Segregation can be used for protection or punishment, but in both cases it results in extreme psychological stress. An indication that segregation is being over-used is the appearance of deaths in custody from suicide of those placed in segregation.
Inquest blames jail for overdose death
UK: An inquest jury returned a verdict itemising a catalogue of faults at Styal prison in Cheshire, concluding that the prison's "failure of duty of care" contributed to the death of Sarah Campbell, 18, who took an overdose of tablets on the first day of her three-year sentence.
Put in the way of self-harm in a place intended to protect others
UK: Sarah Campbell, 18, spent the last hours of her life in the segregation unit of Styal prison, Cheshire. "The seg", as those places are referred to, used to be known as "the block", short for punishment block. [ Seg is a bullshit word for Punishment, Solitary Confinement, Torture, Mental Illness, Self-Harm, Human Rights Abuse and that is State Terror.]
Britain 'sliding into police state'
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is transforming Britain into a police state, one of the country's former leading anti-terrorist police chiefs [false flag police chiefs] said yesterday.
UK solitary confinement
UK: Segregation units are prisons within prisons - the places where the most unchecked brutality is meted out to prisoners. In recent years conditions in high security segregation units have deteriorated, and the use of long-term segregation as a control mechanism has increased.
Inquiry must root out prison racists
UK: It is difficult to imagine a more brutal murder than that of Zahid Mubarek. The 19-year-old was clubbed to death by his cellmate at Feltham Young Offender Institution in the early hours of 21 March 2000. He was due to be released just a few hours later.
Prison suicides soar as jails hire 'babysitters'
UK: Prison officers are being taken off suicide watch and replaced by unqualified 'babysitters' because the system is overwhelmed by an epidemic of self-harm.
Plan to sell off juvenile jails as job lot
UK: The government is to put out to tender all its dedicated juvenile jails that hold children under 18 in a departure in Whitehall's privatisation programme.
Failure to sack 'racist' prison staff condemned
UK: Two prison officers suspended for racism are still on full pay three years after a stash of Nazi memorabilia, neo-fascist literature and Ku Klux Klan-inspired 'nigger-hunting licences' was found in a police raid on their home.
Report slams 'unjust' jailing of women on remand
UK: Six out of 10 women sent to jail while they await trial are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, a report published today reveals. Introducing the report, Lady Kennedy QC calls for a complete review of the use of remand and bail for women saying it is "inhumane and unjust".
Concern as UK prison suicides hit record level
UK: More prisoners took their own lives in English jails in August than in any other month since records began, prison reformers said today.
End of years of despair as Holloway closes its doors
But now Holloway prison in north London - where Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, was hanged in 1955 - has been earmarked for closure, along with several other women's prisons, which have been hit by a spate of suicides.
How detox and self-help brought suicide jail back from the brink
UK: Six suicides in 12 months made Styal jail notorious and the Prisons Ombudsman criticised the prison and its staff for serious failures. But things are changing.
Belmarsh detainees consider suicide, says freed man
UK: The first of the Muslim detainees released from Belmarsh high security prison after being held on suspicion of terrorism has told the Guardian his fellow prisoners are suffering such severe mental problems that they constantly consider suicide.
Suicides and unrest have soared, admits Home Office
UK:The already overcrowded prison population is set to go on rising and will top 80,000 within the next three years, a senior Home Office civil servant warned yesterday.
England tops the EU in imprisonment
England and Wales jail more offenders per capita than any other European, Union country, according to new figures.
Govt, police 'let off the hook' Haneef inquiry
8 years ago