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Sir Martin Narey addresses Cambridge University students discussing prisons and child neglect




Delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me back once again

I want to share a few reflections, two of them about prisons and one about child neglect


  • First, I want to say something about the purpose of imprisonment – indeed the purpose of sentencing – and the limits of rehabilitation.
  • Secondly, something about the challenge, so often under-estimated of maintaining decency and dignity in prison and why it’s a challenge which never disappears.
  • And third I want to say something about my life since leaving the world of prisons and probation which has largely involved trying to gain a better understanding of the care system and about child neglect and its relationship to offending.

The purpose of imprisonment

I joined the Prison Service pretty much by accident. In 1981, when my wife and I had our first child and, as a consequence, didn’t go out very much, I watched all 8 episodes of a TV documentary about Strangeways Prison, made by an inspirational film maker Rex Bloomstein. I was appalled, indignant, and horrified. Later that year, pretending to be interested in training to be a prison governor, I was invited to visit a prison, this time Lincoln Prison and on Christmas Eve. It was just like Strangeways but with an immediacy which only a live visit could deliver. It stank of human waste as men, sharing cells made by the Victorians for one person, defecated in buckets in their cells. The handful of prisoners unlocked, were sewing mailbags. When I asked the governor about rehabilitation, I was laughed at, and staff casually and openly spoke contemptuously about the men for whom they were supposed to be caring. It was appalling. But I walked out of that prison on that Christmas Eve afternoon, very clear that I didn’t want to do anything else with my working life and I sent off my application to the Home Office.

I was naive and idealistic. I wanted to rehabilitate and to change lives and believed the primary impediment to that was the poverty and the humiliation of the conditions in which we kept people.

16 years later, I found myself as Director General and, very significantly, in a time of great optimism about public services and massive investment in them. I got on extremely well with the Cabinet Minister then responsible for prisons: Jack Straw. I sought massive investment in improving physical conditions, but mostly in education, drug treatment and offending behaviour programmes.

And we did make an impact. But barely so. The reductions in predicted reoffending were only just statistically significant. For most people incarcerated during that period, and I would suggest, a much larger proportion incarcerated now, when regimes are so frequently impoverished, prison made little or no difference when measured by reoffending.

Short Sentences

Then and now, short sentences were particularly ineffective in terms of rehabilitation, partly because prisoners spending only a few weeks in prison get very little exposure to education or other constructive experiences. But also because such exposure, if it is to work at all, needs to be significant. So in education, an offender needs to make progress sufficient to increase his employability. In drug treatment an offender needs to get clean and develop a strategy for staying clean. None of that can be achieved in a few weeks.

We’ve always known this. Thirty Five years ago, working in a Borstal in the North East of England, and with indeterminate sentences of between six and 24 months, we held prisoners longer – and this seems absurd and unjust today – not because their crime or their dangerousness justified it, but because we wanted them to qualify as Welders or Bricklayers.

We’ve always known that short sentences of imprisonment aren’t rehabilitative while forgetting that, overwhelmingly, nor are long sentences.

So the call – apparently being taken very seriously in Scotland but also advocated in England – is to ban short sentences. I suggest that will end in tears.

And that is because imprisonment has never been just about rehabilitation. Rehabilitation might be one purpose of imprisonment – and it’s the one to which I dedicated much of my working life. But we also send people to prison for deterrence and, most importantly, for retribution.

So with – for example – domestic murderers – we frequently know that the convicted spouse is most unlikely to kill again or indeed offend in any way. But we still give them life sentences.

When Rolf Harris was convicted of crimes against children a few years ago, and although aware that he was no longer a danger to children, we still sent him to prison for a long sentence. And quite right too. Without retribution, one of the cornerstones of a civilised society, the reliance on the criminal justice system, rather than vigilantism to punish offenders, would be eroded. Grave and serious crimes have frequently been punished with sentences which bear no relation to the needs of rehabilitation but are a signal of public contempt and intolerance.

I commend to you the recently re-published story of the Great Train Robbery by Piers Paul Reid. What is very clear there, was that the Courts, in dealing with robbers who were not armed with guns, and whose crime was audacious rather than brutal, were conscious of public, political and Ministerial horror at the humiliation of a robbery from the British Post Office and on a British Rail Train. Nearly all those involved got sentences – almost unknown at the time – of 30 years. They were sentenced for retributive reasons. Because retribution matters.

And that’s why, in my view, abolishing short sentences of imprisonment because they cannot rehabilitate would be a dangerous step and might do two things. It might further erode confidence in a criminal justice system which is already viewed sceptically by much of the popular press. And secondly, it will, eventually, propel some offenders to prison for longer periods.

Discussion about this issue is more than usually lacking in any sort of rigour. The Liberal Democrats will support the SNP Government in Scotland in abolishing short sentences there and will push for a similar reform in England. The Lib Dem leader in Scotland has said:

“I think we should be doing much more in the way of community sentences… where someone is repairing some of the damage that they’re done and making a positive contribution to the community.”

Nothing wrong with that. But the belief seems to be that Courts, frequently and casually, use imprisonment when a community alternative has not been tried. The reality, certainly in England, is very different. When Michael Gove, in his early reforming zeal was asked by the Prison Governors Association and others to abolish short sentences in England and Wales, I urged him not to do so. And I accompanied the arguments I’ve shared here with a quick bit of research which I conducted at Doncaster Prison.

Over a one week period in 2015, I got the Prison to examine the previous criminal history of all those sentenced for periods of six months or less. The mean age of those individuals was 30. They had been previously been found guilty of an average of 50 separate offences, and had been convicted at court on an average of 24 previous occasions.

None of the individuals were without a history of offending. Most of them had offended persistently and over many years. All of them had previously been sentenced to non-custodial punishments, many of them on a number of occasions.

Just what is a Court to do when offenders have offended so persistently, and have had numerous community penalties? In this sample, I remind you, they had previously been convicted on an average of 24 times? I believe they were incarcerated for short periods, not in the misguided belief that it would do much good, but because the needs of retribution necessitated the deprivation of liberty.

My guess is that if short sentences are abolished, sentencers, having exhausted alternatives will still use prison. We’ll find ourselves sending men to prison for sentences longer than their offending might merit on the dubious grounds that sentences of under 12 months don’t work. When, I’m afraid to say, sentences of over 12 months don’t work either…

Decency is a more realistic challenge

I’m not saying that we should ignore rehabilitation. We’d be mad not to use the opportunity that custody affords to educate individuals and make them employable. And we can do that on a much larger scale. My advice to Michael Gove, also in 2015, to allow prisoners Ipads (or the equivalent) so that much more education (as well as communication with families) could take place in cell was leaked to the Press. But I’m glad to say that Michael didn’t lose his nerve and we’re creeping toward that reality. But my message is that we need to be realistic about what prison can achieve in terms of rehabilitation.

You’ll be aware of recent research which has, disappointingly, shown that the most carefully delivered of all rehabilitative interventions; the sex offender treatment programme has been ineffective in reducing offending. That was reported in terms which suggested that when the programmes were introduced – largely on my watch – that we believed they were some sort of cure that might slash future sexual offending. Nonsense. Even in our most optimistic moments we knew that the best we could hope for was that we’d reduce reoffending by about ten per cent. We knew that 90% of the time SOTP programmes would not stop offending. And that’s quite simply because there simply aren’t any cures. And so, phrases like the rehabilitation revolution, coined by a recent Secretary of State, amount to no more than a deceit.

So what should prison governors be prioritising in running their institutions if rehabilitation on any large scale is beyond them. Is there any point? Yes there is. The challenge is to run prisons which treat prisoners with decency and dignity. Churchill might have stolen the quote from Dostoyevsky and passed it off as his own, but he was right to say that The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country. Keeping prisons clean, treating those we incarcerate with dignity, allowing them a reasonable life within the confines imposed by a loss of liberty is a noble cause. But it’s a cause not easy to achieve and, from my more recent observations of prisons here in England, we’re failing more often than for some years.

In the seven years I ran prisons in England and Wales, I made decency my priority. In part because I’ve always believed that decency might provide the platform for modest increases in rehabilitation. But I mainly wanted to pursue decency because it was morally required. I joined a prison service which was routinely violent, where a not insignificant minority of staff were brutal toward prisoners and where a greater minority were not themselves brutal, didn’t assault prisoners themselves, but walked away while others did.

I think that brutality has been much reduced. But I never believed, even in my most optimistic moments that it disappeared and – as I’ve said many times before – show me a prison governor who believes that prisoners in their care are never abused and I’ll show you someone not fit to be a governor.

Decency, of course, is about much more than preventing brutality. Its about the way prisoners are addressed, about the cleanliness of the cells in which they live and the lavatories they use. It’s about privacy when dealing with bodily functions. It’s about the ability to be visited by loved ones in welcoming conditions. It’s about access to books, television and cultural activities. In short, it’s about holding offenders in the sort of conditions in which we’d want our children to be held if they were ever unfortunate enough to be imprisoned.

The constant threat of prisoner abuse

But above all else, a decent prison is one in which offenders are not physically abused. And the risk of that is always – simply always -present. I think that we too often fall into the trap of believing that those who abuse prisoners are – to use the cliché – just a few bad apples. I’d like to convince you that the potential to abuse, is there in all of us and we need to run penal institutions in that certain knowledge.

When I was a young, naive and somewhat idealistic trainee governor in a North East Borstal in 1982, I knew that some officers assaulted prisoners. But I was comforted by the conviction that the overwhelming majority did not and would not. Then, one night, I was called into the Borstal because a young boy, a child in fact, had self-harmed, cutting his wrists quite badly. I was sufficiently concerned that I called the senior officer in charge of the hospital and asked him to come in. I knew him well – I thought – and spent many hours in his hospital discussing prisons and prisoners and their capacity to reform. He was caring. He was a good guy. But that night, within minutes of his arriving in the Borstal he launched on assault on this child which shocked me deeply. His apology to me was significant. “I’m sorry” he said, “I’m really sorry. You weren’t supposed to see that…”

People, all people, not just a sub group of bad people can be susceptible to behaviour which is grossly out of step with their general behaviour, demeanour and attitude to life. And it’s that capacity for individuals to be corrupted which is what we need to be aware of. The staff, the prison officers who might abuse prisoners are not always recognisable. People perceived as generally good, who consider themselves as genuinely moral can do terrible things.

I recently read a fascinating biography about a man – like me – born into a devout Roman Catholic family. As he grew up, and encouraged by parents who cossetted him, he developed a vocation for the priesthood. And although that vocation was never fulfilled he considered himself to be deeply Christian and with an earnest belief in the role of duty in what had to be a moral life.

That sense of duty drew him to the army and in the First World War he served his country with distinction. Promoted through the ranks he became the youngest non commissioned officer in the army. Wounded three times and a victim of malaria caught while in combat, he was awarded his country’s highest decorations for gallantry.

In peacetime he became attracted to a back to the land movement and pursued a farm based life style in which family life was of immense importance. He married and had five children whom he was known to love very much. He became interested in photography and his autobiography is littered with photographs depicting a simple family life: picnics and ball games.

A few days before he died he dedicated his autobiography to his three daughters and two sons and in a final message capturing indisputably his love for his children, he told his eldest son to

“Keep your good heart. Become a person who lets himself be guided primarily by warmth and humanity… listen above all to the voice in your heart”

In between his adoption of his rural, back to nature, family based lifestyle in the 1930s and his death in 1947 at the age of 46, this loving Father was the Commandant of Auschwitz and was responsible – as he later told a court at Nuremburg – for the degradation, humiliation, and slaughter of two and a half million Jewish men, women and children, gassed by the Zyklon B Gas whose use he enthusiastically developed. This was Rudolf Hoess.

It would be a comfort to us all if people like Hoess were recognisably monsters. But, mostly they were not and are not. I had a mostly very poor two years of training to be a prison governor in the 1980s. But that training was worthwhile if only to discover in an edition of the Prison Service Journal a brief article titled ” A Curious Absence Of Monsters” which, more eloquently than I have been able to do this evening explored this worrying truth: People like us can do unimaginable things and institutions which are closed, in which the incarcerated have few rights, little access to justice or protection will always be vulnerable. That’s why the challenge of preventing abuse is never ending.

Child Neglect

Finally, let me change tack and, as I promised say something about child neglect and the care system in England. Since 2005 when I resigned as the first Head of what was then NOMs I went to lead Barnardo’s, the children’s charity. The logic was only apparent to many people but a few understood when I began to focus on the care system which, as I enthusiastically argued in my first year at Barnardo’s, damaged children, sometimes criminalised them and effectively delivered them into custody.

Ten years later, after almost six years heading Barnardo’s and a further six acting as an advisor to successive Secretaries of State at Education (Michael Gove, NIcky Morgan and Justine Greening) I can say that the only thing wrong with that statement, that the care system damaged children, sometimes criminalised them and effectively delivered them into custody was that it was utterly untrue.

The care system in England can certainly be improved and I’ve done a lot of work proposing reforms to adoption and to children’s homes which are being implemented in full by this government. And I’m currently reviewing fostering and will report with recommendations by the end of the year. That too can be improved.

But contrary to widespread media, political, public and – particularly – penal pressure group opinion, the care system improves lives for children who have to be removed from their families which have neglected them. The fact that about a third of the children’s prison population has experienced care does not mean that the care system has caused their criminality and incarceration, it’s that incarceration has happened despite the best efforts of a care system which in terms of educational outcomes and child well being does a decent job.

The challenge for us all, but a particular challenge for the Prison and Probation Services, because they pick up the consequences, is to see what more can be done to prevent the long-term psychological damage caused by neglect in early life. My view, which would be challenged by many, is that we take too long trying to fix dysfunctional families and then, when we finally remove children to safety, we too often return them to the families which have previously neglected them. And they do so again. Those individuals, children and adults, flood your prisons. A serious penal policy, delivered across government, would address the child neglect which years later delivers them, as older children or young adults, into your care.

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