Governing Prisons: despair and hope

Location : Norwich

Andy Barclay reviews his work in the UK prison service and a second career in the International Centre for Prison Studies.

I was bought up in post war Coventry, which was a very prosperous city. I come from a background of public service both in terms of my father and my grandfathers and I moved to Liverpool when I was 15.

The contrast in those two cities post war was huge because Coventry was a very prosperous, new, exciting, rebuilding of the city. Liverpool was going downhill with the docks closing and was a much poorer city and that created my interest in looking at society and the way people behave and the differences between classes and the difficulties of people living in poverty.

I also come from a background of Free Church which I think is a democratic, very socially conscious church. I was brought up in that atmosphere and didn’t enjoy my school in Liverpool

I did okay in terms of getting A Levels so I rebelled. I’m not a rebel, but I chose to do social science at university rather than the traditional History, English, Geography, Science type of subjects.

In 1965, when I started university, social science was very new, particularly sociology, so it was a subject that the school knew nothing about, which pleased me. So I went off to a new university, the University of Kent at Canterbury, and was one of the first students there. That led me into studying a whole variety of aspects of sociology and I became interested in the study of institutions which was part of the course.

I think my career is reflected by the number of good people that I luckily met and the first guy that really influenced me was the lecturer in institutions who had lectured prison staff prior to coming to university – so there was a link here between what I was studying and a future career.

I had gone into social science thinking much more in terms of social work, probation, community-based work rather than going into prisons. Before going to university, joining the prison service had never occurred to me but the influence of this lecturer, and visiting Dover Borstal whilst at university, that made me think ‘oh, this interesting’.

Now in those days they had a student volunteer scheme in the prison service, which looking back was remarkable and would never occur now so this lecturer put me in contact with Blundeston Prison, which has just closed but in those days was a brand new prison, the first prison that had been purpose built since Victorian times.

It was a very exciting prison to visit and they let me loose in the place for three weeks. I lived in the staff accommodation which had a canteen and a club and there is a lot of military terminology in the prison service because it comes from the military background, so this was known as the officers’ mess.

I was able to go to management meetings with the governor, go into the workshops and around the landings talking to staff and all the prisoners. Those three weeks enabled me to get into every aspect of the prison. I had no agenda and the prisoners and the staff didn’t see me as a threat so I learnt a massive amount in a short time about the way a prison works.

The person who was the Assistant Governor, which was the junior grade in the prison service at the time, was a man who was full of enthusiasm and full of energy. I had no idea what I was going to do when I left university so I thought ‘well I will give it five years.’ I was too late to apply for that particular year. I applied successfully for the job and did 27 years.

Work with young offenders

In 1968 I became a supervisor in a remand home for young boys, kids between nine and 15 or 16 who were awaiting a court appearance or were in the care of the council.

It was a mixed bag of about 40 kids and I learnt a huge amount from that year because the principal was a very progressive man, and my only brief when I took over that job was to make relationships with the boys.

Well that’s all very well, but when you’re a new graduate with no experience, what do you do on a daily routine to make relationships?

On the one hand we had this wonderful progressive principal, and his wife who was the matron whose main interest was polishing the floors and making the beds correctly and getting the kids to behave.

So I ended up as a junior member of staff basically supervising a group of kids shining this lino and doing hospital corners on the beds. The matron would then come round and inspect and find specks of dust; well the kids didn’t respond to that, and neither did I.

The best bit of that year was when the Fire Service came to do a fire inspection. Much to our delight he said that the lino was a fire risk because it had so much polish on it, so we took great delight in actually clearing all the polish off.

But it taught me a huge amount and it also was an introduction to the change that was going on in the 60s.

On the one hand you had the traditions of the institution, the children were all in jeans and a roll neck sweater and all wore the same clothes. On the other hand things were moving forwards so that when we had an inspector there they asked where the cane was – because corporal punishment could still be used. We had to admit that it had been made into a kite and was stuck up a tree.

It was that kind of contrast between the tradition and the discipline, a place with modern thinking allowing much more free expression with the children and trying to help them develop.

But some of them really were very, very deprived and I guess that’s when I realised that my upbringing – a very secure and kind of middle class upbringing – contrasted with these kids.

The best illustration was a nine-year-old who came in and the only description of him would be amoral, he didn’t understand right and wrong, he had no concept of how to behave.

We took him up to the dormitory to show him his bed and he assumed that he was going to sleep on the floor. He had never slept in a bed before. Now this is 1968, it’s not Dickensian times and this kid simply assumed he’d be on the floor. He’d never had pyjamas; he didn’t know what they were; he didn’t know how to hold a knife and fork.

It was really extraordinarily basic – and yet he was cherubic in his whole presentation. He was blonde and blue eyed, beautiful looking little boy. On the first night a 16-year-old tried to nick his bacon and he just went him with his fork, he had no fear.

So I learnt very quickly that the world that I had been bought up in and their worlds were miles apart and so although it was only a year that I spent working in that remand home it was a big learning experience.

Into the prison service

In 1969 I applied, successfully, to join the prison service. I was 22, and the prison service was undergoing massive change. I remember the advertisement for the job was social work in prison. We were trying to move away from the traditional disciplinary lock-up to the idea of treating people to allow them to resettle back in the community and that whole concept of social work in prison was at the centre of that change.

There’d there were the young offenders’ establishments: borstals, which had house masters very much in the public school tradition, but there had never been the equivalent young graduate-entry with people going into the prison side. It had always been with the young offenders prior to this.

I married in that year – I met my wife at university – and I went to Wakefield to start my training at the Imperial Prison Service Training College. My wife did her post graduate teacher’s PGSE or something like that at Leeds University.

In those days it was not difficult to get a job if you had a degree, so my interview for the prison service was 45 minutes chatting to four or five people in an interview room in London.

I think I only ever went to two interviews in my whole life so I have been very fortunate, when you look at the careers of young people these days who have to do more than that in a week if they want to try to get a job.

Again I came across this contrast between the old and the new. I was a long haired sociology graduate moving into a very traditional system which relied very much on ex-armed forces people.

So governors always carried their rank with them – so there was Captain this and Major that and Commander this and Commander that and so when I walked in with my other peers and we’d all got long hair this was quite a dramatic social change within the prison service at the time.

The course was nine months and was quite amusing because it reflected that conflict if you like, because there were still the remnants of how to behave as an officer and a gentleman; again a military model.

You’re coming in as a graduate entry in a senior position without doing any of the legwork on the landings, they took us down a coal mine in Yorkshire to educate us how the other half lived.

We did very little on the rules and regulations until the last few weeks but on the other hand they were introducing new subjects like sociology and child care and development. That course was this mixture again of the very traditional and the military and the new ideas that were around in the 60s.

Again I was very lucky in the sense that the postings board came at the end of the course and I was very fortunate in having a very good tutor. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no career plan, I had no particular idea of where I wanted to serve and so my tutor very kindly did the work for me and steered me towards a brand new prison in Surrey called Coldingley.

The tradition had been that anybody under 30 went off to young offenders’ establishments and everybody over 30 went into prison. I went to this postings board and said ‘I want to go to work in a prison’.

There was a chap who had spent all his life and was very senior in the Borstal service and I was so naïve that I just said to him ‘Well I don’t want to go to Borstals, I think Borstals are coming to the end of their existence’, which in reality they were. But it was not exactly tactful to say to this poor chap who had spent his whole life and career doing work in Borstals that they were coming to the end.

I was threatened that if I went to prison that I would definitely go to a Borstal on my second posting. On my second posting I actually ended up in a high security prison so I very much went to the adult side rather than the young offender side from that point.

On my first visit to Coldingley, which was a purpose-build industrial prison, I walked in with the deputy governor into the yard and this ex-Coldstream guard principal officer in uniform stood to attention and saluted. My immediate reaction was to look behind me to see who he was saluting. Of course I realized then that he was saluting me, and that I was entering a paramilitary organization where people still stood to attention and saluted.

Governor grades were not in uniform so we always were the gentlemen who were not in uniform. The uniformed ranks were topped by the chief officer and if you joined as a young prison officer your ambition really was to become a chief officer.

You very rarely found in those days people going from the uniformed ranks into the governor ranks so the governors very much were direct entrants, either ex-military, university graduates, or change of profession like chaplains or probation officers.

All sorts came into the prison service at the time and Coldingley was trying to establish a way of training prisoners in the work ethic. So it was an industrial prison very much in line with several other specialist prisons created at the time, based on what loosely we used to call the treatment model.

So there was Grendon which still exists as a psychiatric prison, Coldingley an industrial prison and others that specialized in group work or some kind of therapy that was going on. It was quite an exciting time to be in the prison service.

Governors had a lot of independence; the centre, headquarters, were kept distant from us, we really were allowed to develop what we wanted to do. So the governor became a very important person in the direction that the prison was going. Again I was extremely fortunate as my first and second governors were progressive people who developed some really exciting ideas.

I was brought to earth a bit, well more than a bit, when I moved from Coldingley to the high security prison on the Isle of Wight called Albany. Both were built in the 1960s, so my first two postings, each lasting three years, were brand new prisons which were very different from what was happening in the rest of the prison service at that time.

Both those prisons had the first electronic computerised unlocking systems which was highly unusual, it enabled people on a landing to have their doors unlocked at night to go out to the toilet and have a shower one at a time so this was revolutionary in terms of a prison system, where the great majority of prisoners were locked up at 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening and were not unlocked until 7 o’clock the following morning and their only access to anything was just a pot and the lid in the corner.

It was barbaric, absolutely barbaric. The new system, which was extraordinarily complex, to allow somebody to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, needed an extraordinarily complex computer – we had a massive building simply for the computer.

But the government in the 60s was saying ‘We’ve got to change from these Victorian prisons, which were still the majority of the prison estate, to something new and we did do quite a lot of exciting programmes within those two prisons.

In the late 60s there had been the famous escape of Russian spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs, and the train robbers from Birmingham and Wandsworth prison. These had been huge embarrassments to the government so in 1969 there were reports which recommended that we should have a group of high security prisons and Albany was one of those.

Reform beginning in the service

At the same time in the late 60s there were a lot of prisoner rights movements starting. For the first time people were talking about prisoner representation on committees in prisons, and this was beginning to happen. On a very basic level you could have a catering committee, where you’d have the prisoners coming on to discuss the food service, but then you could have them involved in how to run the unit.

And then there was something called PROP, which was a prison union operating from outside the prison service starting to say ‘look, prisoners have rights and we need to actually improve the prisons to enable prisoners to have those rights’.

For example, nobody had radios in those days, newspapers were still censored, all letters were censored, so you had a lot of restrictions. PROP decided to orchestrate a prisoner demonstration where all prisoners throughout the country did a sit-down demonstration. This was orchestrated by the Today Programme, funnily enough, they didn’t mean to orchestrate it.

Prisoners must have had radios then. Radios had been introduced as a result of a riot in Brixton Prison in the early 70s and then the prisoners continued to pressurize for reform. So the Today Programme was saying at 8 o’clock, right, an hour to go – it was to start at 9 o’clock. Then ‘half an hour,’ 20 minutes ….’

So all the prisoners were listening to the programme; most of them did not know what the heck it was all about. I was at Coldingley at the time and they all sat down on 9 o’clock and said ‘why are we here? What are we doing here?’ A lot of the prisoners didn’t understand what was being orchestrated from the outside.

There was a lot of prisoner unrest because of all the introduction of security systems into the prison service and I was moved to Albany after a major riot there in 1972.

Having been in this very progressive industrial prison I was then moved to a prison that was very, very tense and very, very aware of its security with some extraordinarily difficult prisoners of the time, with outside orchestration going on to promote disruption. So it was quite a baptism of fire into that kind of world and of course the prison service wasn’t used to it.

The prison service had no expertise in this kind of thing at the time. When I joined the prison service you had this tradition of the military role, then you had this whole new thinking of treatment, and wanting to help prisoners resettle in the community, and then the pressure for prison reform from outside groups.

Some very, very disruptive dangerous prisoners were taking advantage of all of this and causing chaos because the prison service just had no expertise in this area. So it was quite an extraordinary experience to be involved in that.

At the same time as all of this there was the growth in the trade union movement, because prisons obviously reflect what was going on in outside society. In the late 60s and 70s there was this huge growth of trade union power and the Prison Officer’s Association grew and followed that trend.

Again the prison service had no expertise in industrial relations, and throughout that period in the 70s and 80s, the prison service had very poor industrial relations. So we were very much involved, at the same time as all of this was going on, with threats of industrial action from prison officers.

You asked me earlier did I enjoy this? You never went to work knowing that you were going to have a dull day; you always went to work knowing that something was going to happen that day that was going to be really interesting or disastrous, that was the stimulation of it.

You were constantly stimulated by the people because from the time you walked in the gate, you were dealing with different people all with different agendas and you had to somehow or other manage this community in a stable safe way, giving people hope, many of whom had never had hope. You can’t really get very much more challenging than that, it really is an extraordinarily challenging job.

I became governor at Norwich which in 1986 and people used to say to me ‘what’s your job all about?’ Essentially running a prison you are running a small community with people who don’t want to be there, so everything you have in the community you are operating within the perimeter wall.

So you’re doing the basic hotel functions, you’ve got to provide food, you’ve got to provide clothing, bedding, hygiene, all those basic hotel functions. You’ve got to provide security, you’ve got to make sure that people don’t escape if you’re in a secure setting. There are open prisons but the ones I worked in were always closed prisons.

You’ve got to have order and control, so you’ve got to actually be able to keep a community safe and orderly with a group of prisoners most of whom have never really had good education, most of them have truanted, many have been in care. Their whole background has not been one of order, never had any kind of discipline or disciplined family life, if they had any family life, so they come from a pretty chaotic social background.

At the same time as doing those things you’ve then obviously got to offer people opportunities to do things that are going to be useful in terms of their resettlement when they get out.

So in every prison there is an education department running everything from literacy courses – a huge percentage of the prisoners were illiterate – through to Open University.

You had to offer that whole range and you couldn’t do it in term-times because nobody conveniently came along in September and left in July, they all came and went at different times so education provision had to meet different needs at different times.

And then you had to provide vocational training courses, offering the opportunity of work where you could. You’re in charge of building maintenance and personnel functions because when I was at Norwich I had 500 staff with a prison population of 750-odd, so there were industrial relations issues.

You also had a very big budget to control as governor, you really were keeping a lot of balls in the air and trying to run a very complex community which people don’t understand.

Most people don’t come in contact with prison, they think you just pop ‘em in and they do what they’re told and you lock ‘em up, but it’s extraordinarily complex. That’s what gave me the stimulus and the challenges to work as governor because you had to know how to manage all these things.

And then there was health care. In Norwich when I was governor, we had a hospital and a health care centre that serviced not only Norwich prison but the other prisons in Norfolk and Suffolk. Mental health was a huge issue in prisons

As a governor you are obviously around the prison day and night to observe what was happening.

I was visiting the hospital at Norwich prison one day and the staff advised me not to go into the first cell. So I had this bizarre conversation, through the door – there’s a viewing panel through which you can talk quite easily – with this guy who was convinced that he was St John the Baptist and I was Jesus and we had this wonderful conversation, role-playing.

The next cell I went into there was a man literally standing on his head reading a book and we had a conversation about the book he was reading and he continued to have this conversation standing on his head.

The next cell this guy wouldn’t speak and ever since his arrest he had remained mute and he spoke through his eyes, so when I spoke to him he kind of replied by shining his eyes or lowering his eyes or moving his eyes. He turned out to be a psychologist who just was acting that out.The next cell I went into the guy was in a foetal position rolled up in the corner and was quite clearly very mentally ill.

I carried on, talked to the staff, walked out of the prison and went for my lunch and it was only on the way down Kett’s Hill that I thought to myself, that is just extraordinary.

I’ve witnessed the most extraordinary human behaviour and these people shouldn’t be in prison. So many people who are mentally ill or socially inadequate should never ever be in prison and that’s lived with me quite passionately through my career. They should have care in the community and shouldn’t be locked up in that way.

Another prison where I worked in the 70s, was Pentonville, the model prison for 1848. When I went there in 1976 it had had no maintenance for five years. Now they are proposing houses on the site and building a new prison. But in 1976, Pentonville’s emergency lighting was still gas lighting in this Victorian prison. This is a complete contrast to the two brand new prisons that I’d started working in.

The prisoners were all serving sentences of under nine months so we took all the dossers and homeless people who were arrested in London and people who hadn’t paid their alimony in divorce settlements or civil debts too.

First, none of those are in prison now, so the good news is that all these people now are dealt with in the community. In 1976 they were not, so we’d get people come in for seven days for a non-payment of a £5 fine because they hadn’t got any money. They’d come in for seven days; we would literally give them fresh clothing, clean them up as it were; they’d see the doctor and get checked out and then we’d pop them back out on the streets, like some kind of hostel. So what we were doing in those days was a social function that should have been done in the community.

There were some funny stories. Once we had a guy come in regularly at Christmas because the Christmas food was good and it was warm, so he would deliberately break a window or do some petty crime before Christmas. The magistrates would fine him and he couldn’t pay the fine, so he’d come in for Christmas for his Christmas meal.

He did this year on year out and a good-natured principal officer who knew him well just said ‘Look this is crazy. Next Christmas don’t come in. Go to the Salvation Army, they’re excellent, they’ll look after you. You don’t have to go through all this.

So about March in he comes again and went to the principal officer and said ‘That was the lousiest advice you’ve ever given me. I’m much, much better off in the prison than the Sally Army!’ So you get those who were very interesting but they should never have been in prison.

Another funny story. Again I was third in charge of Pentonville, which in those days took about 1200 prisoners. The telephone rang and this voice came over ‘Is that the governor?’ and I said ‘No, no it’s not the governor. It’s the deputy governor.’ ‘Right’ he said ‘I’m coming to see you next week, I need to know the routine’.

So I said ‘Oh right. What do you need?’ I had assumed he was a visitor or something and he said ‘No. Captain Smith here. Captain Smith. Just been told I’ve got to come and serve some time for not paying my alimony. I’m buggered if I’m going to pay this alimony and I’m definitely going to come into prison. Do I bring my pyjamas; do I bring my toothpaste? Give me the ball.’ So sure enough he came in and he served his sentence rather than pay the money to his wife or his ex-wife.

One had those very amusing and strange events going on in that prison but that’s gone and that’s good. Those people should never have been in prison, it was a complete waste of public money. Pentonville was a reflection of the old Victorian prisons of the time which were dreadfully overcrowded.

Norwich prison

When I came to Norwich, Norwich Prison, the Victorian part which is now closed, it had a certified normal accommodation figure, the jargon for how many people it should officially hold, one in a cell, of 179 and when I took over in 1968 it had 360.

It was then one of the most overcrowded local prisons in the country, everybody had a pot in their cells. It was falling down basically, it really was falling down, but it’s taken until comparatively recently for it to be declared unfit.

It should have been declared unfit before I arrived in 1986 but that remained the situation up until 1990; then the prison service just about had enough accommodation for its prisoners but overcrowding has been the constant theme throughout my career, and sadly is back again now.

The prison population in this country in 1990 was about 40,000 and it’s now about 85,000 or approaching that figure it has grown enormously. That’s not a reflection of the crime rate, that’s a reflection of the behaviour of the courts and the politicians and the media who simply want to become more and more punitive, which is shocking, absolutely shocking.

We lock up so many more people than any other country in Europe and we don’t seem to mind doing it which I think is a stain on our civilization. Many people, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and all sorts of people, have actually made the comment that you can measure the civilization by the state of its prisons and we don’t come out too well at the moment or really during my time.

So overcrowding was always a problem and one of my biggest achievements at Norwich was to reduce that overcrowding through pressure on my bosses and through my own management of getting the people out of prison. So improving the conditions in Norwich was very important to me.

Just reflecting on my time, I came from two big London prisons, Pentonville and Wandsworth, and I was expecting a similar kind of ethos in Norwich. It took me a year, if I’m honest, to understand that this was a very different culture and a very different ethos and history in Norwich which then reflects the community.

A prison only reflects its community. I’d been used to the big city prisons so when I came to a county, which is much more gentle, it had its problems in terms of industrial relations, but it had essentially good, well-motivated staff who did remarkable things in poor circumstances.

My predecessor in Norwich prison said that when he arrived he discovered that after lock-up in the evenings, when the whole prison is supposed to be locked, the Norfolk staff were unlocking a few chaps to let them have a chat on the landings.

That was a huge breach of security which he had to stop, but the relationships between staff and the prisoners were vastly different from what I had come across. They were saying: ‘They’re good old Norfolk boys, we’ll just let them out and have a chat on the landing, then we’ll pop them back in again.’ That was lovely and reflects the ethos that existed.

The prison also had the Victorian Britannia Army Barracks which were taken over by the prison service when the Norfolk regiment and the Suffolk regiments merged in the 70s and the barracks became a semi-open prison.

So at Norwich I had the old secure prison and the barracks, a semi-open prison which took about 200 prisoners in a network of 24 dormitories of all sorts of sizes from two or three through to about 40, all in bunk beds.

But we had very good workshops and a very good education department and prisoners wanted to be there, because their alternative was to be sent off to serve their sentence elsewhere.

So our great asset was not staff, or perimeter fence, it was that people wanted to be there so they could be close to their families. They knew if they misbehaved they would be back in the local prison.

Although it was chaotic in many senses it was very good humoured and the prisoners responded to it. Because it was a dormitory system and because it was semi-open, even in the late 80s I can remember the tradition on New Year’s Eve was 150 to 200 prisoners and about four staff all doing the conga right the way through the dormitories, through the education classes and back up again. You’d never get that in the prison service now.

I’d probably be sacked now if I was a governor doing that kind of thing but it was the atmosphere, it was the relationships and that frankly was what prisons were all about, if you don’t have effective relationships between every level of a prison system it will collapse.

You’ve got to have constructive and professional relationships between prisoner and staff; and staff have got to be able to trust prisoners and prisoners have got to be able to trust staff. And that’s got to go all the way up through the hierarchy to the Minister. Unfortunately life isn’t always as perfect as that, it won’t work necessarily in that way.

The prison is part of the community. One of the difficulties is that people regard a prison as a monolith; it’s there, you see the walls and the other side of the walls you know nothing about and it’s nothing to do with the community.

At Wandsworth, in the middle of a major London suburb, nobody really knew what was going on, but when I came to Norwich I wanted to try and make it apparent to the community that we were part of the community.

I used to say to people ‘You are going to be bumping into somebody in the supermarket today who may well be arrested tomorrow and the next day be in prison. Then they will be back out after a period and you are going to be bumping into them at the supermarket again.’ So it is not a matter of people disappearing, there are actually people constantly going in and out of prison.

So to link that with the community I took the opportunity at Norwich in 1987 of celebrating its centenary, the date the prison moved from the Castle in Norwich to the new purpose-built Victorian prison. I thought this was an opportunity so we invited the media in.

In the morning, Radio Norfolk broadcast from the prison. We gave them a cell and the presenter came in and did a two-hour programme, interviewing prisoners, staff, playing records. We invited both Anglia and the BBC local programme makers and they both did documentaries about the prison. The EDP came and did an article about the prison.

So I took that opportunity to say to the community, ‘Look this is part of the community and you need to be aware of it.’ I built up a good relationship I hope, with the media, trying to promote what was going on.

If you remember we had the big gales in the late 80s and at that time I had in the semi-open prison with prisoners who were categorized to go out on a daily basis. They had been risk assessed as safe so we offered the council help to clear some local woodland with a party of prisoners.

This group went out each day under the supervision of a council staff member and they put something back into the community by clearing all these fallen trees. It was good for them, they were out of the prison, they were doing something constructive, they were putting back in the community and the community was getting something back from people who had offended against them and that seems to me a very important part of prison work.

But people or politicians are so concerned about security that that sort of thing no longer goes on, which I think is a big loss. I can give lots of other examples of community projects that we did and I hope it is happening now more, with open prisons. I know the local prison has opened a restaurant, being run by prisoners at Norwich, so that tradition is still going on, but I think it could be increased and made better.

Whitemoor high security prison

The big move for me from Norwich was when I was promoted and asked to open the new high security prison in March in Cambridgeshire and this was a huge challenge because opening a new prison is quite an extraordinary thing in itself.

To open a high security prison I think is one of the biggest challenges one can come across in the prison world. When I moved there it was literally a building site. We had nine or ten months of planning before the prisoners arrived and it was amazing to try to establish the necessary balance between security, order and justice, treating people with fairness and giving them opportunities to have some hope and giving them skills to survive in the community.

The prisoner population at Whitemoor was one of the most difficult populations that one could come across. We had two wings of serious sex offenders and two wings of very serious criminals. I think of the population of 500 we had 60 Category A which are the top security categorization, 60 of the most serious sex offenders in the country and we probably had a similar number of drug dealers, IRA, terrorists; big time robbers, armed robbers, murderers.

It really was a very difficult population and to get that balance right between security and control, and giving hope and offering opportunities was a massive challenge and it went really well.

We had an extraordinary Open Day because again I thought if the community is going to have this prison smack in the middle of an old railway town in the Fens it should have the opportunity to see what it’s all about.

Before the prisoners arrived and when we had taken the prison over we opened it up to the public and just let it be known that people could come and have a walk round the prison at this weekend – little anticipating that we had thousands of people come. At one point the police rang and said ‘You’ve blocked up all the roads round March, where are you going to put all these cars?’ Some farmer made a profit by opening one of his fields as a car park. We had thousands of people through the prison.

People needed to understand what the place was all about and we had everything from shock, horror, what on earth are you doing giving prisoners a gymnasium of this quality when we can’t have one in our school, – that’s always a tension whenever you’re doing this kind of work – to being quiet at going into a cell and realizing what it’s like when the doors shut.

That is the biggest loss you have when you go to prison. People underestimate this because they never experience it. It is the loss of freedom and that’s why you go to prison; you don’t go to prison for further punishment, you go to prison for punishment and it’s that loss of freedom, that loss of choice which is the big punishment, which is underestimated by so many people.

I always say to people if you can imagine going to a hotel and you think ‘Gosh, this is a lovely hotel, excellent meal we’re having this evening’ and then you say to them ‘Right you’re not leaving this hotel and we’re going to lock you up every night at 8 o’clock in your bedroom and you’re not going to get out and you’re not going to have a choice about a menu in future’.

Suddenly that hotel becomes less attractive, and that’s the issue, the loss of freedom, the loss of choice.

So on this day people had a huge range of reactions with some very poignant moments. Walking down the corridor an elderly couple started talking to me saying ‘Oh we’ve come because our son’s coming here’ and I said ‘Oh, right’ and I’d made the assumption that the son was a member of staff but in fact the son was a life sentence prisoner who had committed rape, had had all sort of mental health issues.

I am not underestimating the offence, he was a dangerous person, but it was very touching to have this very ordinary elderly couple coming and walking round with them to see where their son was going to be living.

So we had a massive response to this and we were actually welcomed into the community. Most people don’t understand that, but we were welcomed. We brought work into a railway town that had no work and we bought new life into the community

Settling in a new prison, getting the routines going, getting people used to what you want, getting the staff understanding what you want and so on, it’s a massive challenge. We had all sorts of problems, as every new prison does, but we achieved what we set out to achieve. We opened on time, we took in a huge number of very difficult prisoners, we got through difficult situations.

I left and was selected to go onto the Independent Inspectorate of Prisons, which was a job I really wanted. Unfortunately five months after I left there was a big escape from the prison. This was from the special unit – at Whitemoor where we had a prison within a prison.

This special unit took about 20 prisoners maximum but it was normally only about a dozen. In the corner of the grounds we had yet another wall and yet another unit so it was extraordinarily secure. Therefore that escape was extraordinarily embarrassing for the Home Secretary.

They got out of the perimeter but they were captured, very quickly afterwards but quite clearly this rocked the nation. People can probably remember it because there was an escape a couple of months later from another high security prison on the Isle of Wight, Parkhurst, again IRA prisoners, so there were big enquiries and the famous Paxman interview with Michael Howard on television when Michael Howard was asked who was responsible I think about 19 times.

Politically this was a bombshell and so I was removed from the inspectorate because my name was in the frame of somebody who could have been responsible.

In fact, the inquiry bascally said there was no one person responsible, this was a systemic problem that ranged from policies at headquarters through to the night patrol on duty. But politically the Home Secretary at the time needed, as you saw from the Paxman interview, to protect his own position so my career along with other people’s kind of came to a bit of a dodgy position.

So I realised at that point having had a very successful career – I don’t want to appear big-headed but when I came to Norwich I was the youngest ever governor of a prison at that time at 38 – I’d come though very well; I’d done okay.

This was a bombshell to me, to suddenly realize that my career had hit the buffers as a result of a political issue. I had huge support from my peers and from the director general so it was one of those situations where everybody with whom I worked supported me but politically my position was not very good.

At the same time the Conservative party had introduced the concept of contracting out prisons to private enterprise so private companies could now bid and get a contract to build and operate prisons.

Politically this had been introduced for two reasons. First, finance, because prisons are extraordinarily expensive and it was believed that the public sector was inefficient and the private sector was efficient – which I would always challenge – but that was the dogma of the government of the time.

Second, the power of the trade union, the Prison Officers’ Association needed to be broken and one way of breaking this was to introduce the private sector who then didn’t have trade unions. Those were the two major issues.

So the private prisons have begun, they had been operating several years by the time I left Whitemoor and the Home Secretary decided that he would cut the budget of the public sector prisons to what he believed was the that of the private sector prisons.

In order to do that he had to introduce a voluntary redundancy scheme because the only way you can reduce the budget in the prison system is by cutting staff, the staff are something like 80 per cent of the budget.

So I was fortunate enough to get voluntary redundancy which suited me at the time, because I realised that my career had rather hit the buffers and I needed to do something different. I had a wife who had a very good job so I had financial security so I left the prison service with that voluntary redundancy scheme in 1996 and really not knowing what I was going to do.

The International Centre for Prison Studies and work in Libya

I was very fortunate in the sense that a former colleague who had been governor at Brixton and a lady who had run a very successful voluntary sector NGO called NACRO was setting up an international prison project within the Law School at King’s College and they invited me to join them. So for the next 15 years I had a brilliant second career with the International Centre for Prison Studies.

The idea of the International Centre for Prison Studies was to do both research and practical work and try to merge the two. I am not an academic, I am very much a practical person, so I ran the practical projects while others did the research.

I was fortunate enough to go to many different countries to help them develop their own prison systems using the international standards that have been laid down for the management of prisons in the United Nations and the European Community, the European Council, the Council of Europe.

We didn’t go out doing a colonial selling of the English prison system (because we have lots of problems ourselves) but we took the international standards for the management of prisoners, the treatment of prisoners’ health in prisons, treatment of children in prisons, all that whole gamut of international covenants and instruments.

We would be invited into different countries, because obviously we could only go where we were invited, but we then worked with the prison systems to help them improve their work to meet those international standards.

We had a very simple model that you could either use at a very basic level with people on the landings, or you could use at a policy level with ministries. And we just developed models where we took all the international standards to do with food service, health, education, security, control, all those issues that we’ve been talking about, and said ‘Ok, well this is what the international standard says, this is what your law says, this is what’s happening in practice, this is what you’re doing okay, this is what you need to improve on; how are we going do that?’

It’s not rocket science but it was a very effective model to introduce to systems that were frankly at a very basic level, through to quite sophisticated systems.

And I believe you were recognized with an MBE for this work?

Yes, I was very fortunate in the sense that the last project that I worked in was in Libya, which was extraordinary. It was when Gaddafi was in power and the British Embassy in Libya wanted to help Gaddafi to improve his human rights record.

Now human rights in prisons is obviously a very tangible, easily marked-out area and we worked in the prisons to which the courts had sent people. I am saying this very carefully because Gaddafi also had some terrible political prisons and we had to make a judgement when we decided to go in: do we go in with the hope of beginning in the ordinary prisons and then pressurizing to get into the political prisons? Or do we just say, this is too awful, politically we can’t go in.

But we decided, with the British Embassy obviously, that we would do this and the change in the prisons – in the public sector prisons not the political prisons – was enormous because one of the unusual things was there was a lot of finance, it was a rich country.

What we found was, and we found this in every country, people want to do a good job.

You can go into the most dreadful prisons. We went into one prison in Sebha in the desert in Libya which was appalling. I mean it stank, 300 yards away from the prison with all the doors shut you could get the smell. It was horrendous with people lying on the floor.

We went into the women’s unit. My colleague who worked with me was a retired governor of Holloway; he went in and found a newborn baby. The staff hadn’t been aware the baby had been born overnight in the dormitory – that was the state it was in.

By the time we left we got staff trained, the women’s prison was working really well. It had just progressed so fast because people were motivated to change it even within that oppressive awful regime under Gaddafi.

I think, well I hope, that because we went to talk about human rights in those prisons and because people saw that this was the right way to go, that we did have an impact on the revolution against Gaddafi.

The guy with whom we worked was the Minister of Justice, Jalil. Jalil was the leader of the revolution against Gaddafi. The guy with whom we had been working as the Minister of Justice was the leader in the revolution so in our own way I hope that the work that we did within prisons in terms of human rights for prisoners reflected on what happened in Libya at that time.

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Andy Barclay was interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on December 8th 2015.

 

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