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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 October 2005, 12:00 GMT
Prison reform?
On Sunday 30 October 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Martin Narey, Former Head of Prison and Probation Service

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Martin Narey
Martin Narey, Former Head of Prison and Probation Service

ANDREW MARR: Now here is a subject we perhaps don't think about enough. In just ten years our prison population has jumped by more than 50%.

The prisons are now within just a few hundred places of being officially chock full, no more room at all. And conditions inside are gross.

Not my words but those of Martin Narey, the outgoing head of the Prison and Probation Service who joins me now en route to Barnardos. Welcome.

MARTIN NAREY: Thank you.

ANDREW MARR: Let's just do the numbers - we're now 77,500 people in British prisons.

MARTIN NAREY: That's right. In as recently as 1992 we had about 42,000 people in prisons in England and Wales so the surge has been quite inexplicable when the same sort of numbers have been brought before the courts.

ANDREW MARR: And this is of course vastly more than in countries like, per head anyway, in countries like Germany and France?

MARTIN NAREY: We lock up a greater proportion of our population than any other country in Europe.

ANDREW MARR: We also lock up a lot of children and - I was amazed to read 5,000 or so mentally ill people as well?

MARTIN NAREY: Right now in prisons there will be about 5,000 people who are profoundly mentally ill. But also, yes, we lock up 3,000 children.

France has about the same population as us, they lock up about 1200 children. We lock up 3,000 children and the chances of being sent to custody whatever your age, and whatever your crime, have soared over the last ten years.

ANDREW MARR: Now, it was famously said by Michael Howard that prison works. And in a sense it's the consequence of that. You've argued that because we've got falling rates of crime, particularly things like burglary, we should have fewer people in prison. But a lot of people would say "hold on a second, the reason we've got falling rates of crime is because we lock up more people".

MARTIN NAREY: I'm afraid there's no evidence to support that. It would be rather nice if it were true, we didn't have to deal with crime. The main crimes that should lead to a rise in the prison population have fallen since 1996, there's been a significant fall in crime...

ANDREW MARR: ...isn't that because we've removed people from the population?

MARTIN NAREY: No it isn't, I'm afraid there's no evidence to suggest that at all. And, yes, I believe that prison can work. I wouldn't have worked in prisons for 23 years if I didn't believe that to be the case. But the extent to which they can work is gravely reduced if not crippled by the fact we have such appalling overcrowding.

ANDREW MARR: You used the word gross to describe prison conditions. Just talk us through gross - what does it mean?

MARTIN NAREY: Well, it means that this morning and every morning about 16,000 individuals have woken up in a cell meant for one person, meant by the Victorians for one person.

They'll share that cell with another person, they'll have to eat their meals together in that cell, they'll have to use an unscreened toilet in that cell. Imagine having to live a life where you have to defecate in front of a complete stranger in the same room in which you eat your food.

That's the reality of how bad treatment can become. Despite I have to say, huge investment since 1997, which might have, which has improved prisons, but might have transformed them if the population hadn't almost kept pace with that investment.

ANDREW MARR: You were part of this system, I mean you start off as a young prison governor and you move up the system.


ANDREW MARR: Was there any point at which you thought "I can't take this any longer, I'm going to walk out in protest"?

MARTIN NAREY: No, because I believe there have been very significant improvements. I'm very proud of some of the things that have happened in prisons. Hugely proud of the contribution to reducing drug abuse. I think the work on education, the fact that 60,000 prisoners got basic skills qualifications last year have made a difference.

What I'm saying is that we had fewer people locked up and I think we could have fewer people locked up and particularly if we had fewer children locked up prisons would be much more effective and we'd reduce crime.

ANDREW MARR: Against the trend of what for instance the newspapers carry on saying, you would say to government don't build more prisons, get more people out of prison and do it quickly.

MARTIN NAREY: Yes. For example, I can tell you about ten years ago we had about 130 shoplifters locked up in England and Wales. Today there are about 1500. Your chances of being sent to prison for a whole range of relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting or any other forms of theft, have risen about five-fold over ten years.

ANDREW MARR: I mean this is, whatever you think about it, democracy, this is apparently what people want to happen.

MARTIN NAREY: Well yes, there is a great deal of pressure in the media. And, you know, prison is misrepresented in the media, and crime is misrepresented in the media. The reality is that crime has fallen significantly since 1996.

We should be getting a bounty in terms of fewer people being locked up. But ten years ago magistrates sent 9,000 people to prison every year. They convict the same number of people now but they send 35,000...

ANDREW MARR: I guess one of the problems is community services and tagging. There was a report out this week suggesting that nine out of ten young offenders who've been tagged have gone straight back to offending.

MARTIN NAREY: Well, part of the problem is we use silly measures of effectiveness. No one expects medical or surgical procedures to have an immediate transformation, expect people to get better. Actually if you look at that research report on community sentences for young offenders run by the Youth Justice Board. It shows that offenders committed less serious crimes and committed fewer crimes as a result of being on the programmes.

ANDREW MARR: And of course I don't know if you know how many of the 78,000 people in prison at the moment, thereabouts, how many are there for ever?

MARTIN NAREY: Very few, perhaps about 30 or 40 will be there probably for ever.

ANDREW MARR: So 77,000 something or other are coming back?

MARTIN NAREY: They're all going to come out.

ANDREW MARR: Which is why what matters inside prison when it comes to education will matter so much to us.

MARTIN NAREY: Yes, and 60 per cent of that number are going to come out within a few months because we've sent people to prison serving very short sentences. And no matter what you do you can make imprisonment effective if someone is there for a few weeks.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think Ministers are just being a little cowardly or timid about this?

MARTIN NAREY: No, I think Ministers don't dictate who goes to prison although they set an atmosphere which I think sentence is responsive, And I think Ministers can give a greater lead. If we're talking about effectiveness it is quite clearly the case, particularly for children, that community penalties will be more successful in reducing criminality. And we need to say that loudly.

ANDREW MARR: Now, you're off to Barnados. Good luck there. You'll be dealing perhaps with some of the children who have been in prison or, you hope don't go to prison.

MARTIN NAREY: I hope I'll be stopping a few going to prison with some of the fantastic work they do.

ANDREW MARR: All right Martin Narey, thank you very much for that and good luck.

MARTIN NAREY: Thank you.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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