The death was reported today of actor Sam Kelly who played a relatively minor role in TV sitcom Porridge; (the slow and gullible “Bunny” Warren). The show may well have provided the great majority of people in my generation who have never been near a prison, an idea of what life inside is like. It’s misleading of course in all sorts of ways, not least in underplaying the pains of imprisonment – it is a comedy after all. But the sketchy knowledge that the public have about places of detention make it all the more important that we have access to a true and honest picture of the reality of what goes on inside them.
Fortunately we have such a picture in the detailed findings from the Chief Inspector
of Prisons, currently Nick Hardwick, who regularly visits and reports on all of
our prisons. And we are lucky too that we have a government, which according to
its website at any rate attaches great importance to the Chief Inspector’s role
“in order to provide the public, parliament and government with an objective and authoritative assessment of the conditions in prisons”.
There our luck runs out. This morning, Radio 4 Today programme listeners were
treated to a cavalier dismissal of Nick Hardwick’s views by the Justice
Secretary. Chris Grayling went on to make highly misleading statements about the
degree of overcrowding in the prison system and the extent to which it provides
work opportunities for prisoners. Grayling then sought to blame any shortfall in
resources on prison governors and staff who he suggested happily offered up the
cuts in staffing when faced with mass privatisation.
While there may be no votes in prisons, Grayling has a duty of care to
prisoners and the very least we can expect from him is what he expects from us-
honesty. The truth is that he has been far
too ready to make spending cuts without wanting to cut prison numbers. Thank
goodness Nick Hardwick had the courage to say so and let’s hope he sticks to his guns when he’s
hauled in by Grayling on Monday morning and asked to clarify his remarks.