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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 August, 2003, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Prison population increasing
Director General of the Prison Service Phil Wheatley
"Three quarters of those entering jail have been using drugs"

On Sunday, 17 August 2003, Breakfast with Frost featured an interview with Phil Wheatley, Director General, The Prison Service

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

PETER SISSONS: There are more prisoners behind bars in England and Wales than ever before, 74,000 and the number is set to rise.

Already one in five have to share their cells. Last year there was a record number of suicides by prisoners - 105 inmates took their own lives.

These kind of statistics make grim reading for the new Director General of The Prison Service, Phil Wheatley, as he struggles to cope with the increasing pressure. Well he's with us now.

Phil, welcome, you've been in the post since March. What are your first impressions of the job that you've got in hand?

PHIL WHEATLEY: The job is difficult, running prisons was always difficult, it's never going to be an easy job. We are, in spite of the population pressure, managing to make things better and to improve the way we deal with prisoners, to improve the way we treat prisoners and to drive up the quality of what we do. So I see a service that's improving in difficult circumstances.

PETER SISSONS: Last week the Prison Reform Trust found record numbers committing suicide, record levels of overcrowding, record levels of staff sickness and much more. Eight out of 19 key performance indicators failed.

PHIL WHEATLEY: But at the same time record numbers of offending behaviour programmes delivered which reduced the risk of people return to crime, record levels of drug treatment delivered, record levels of educational qualifications achieved by prisoners which give them a chance to get into the job market.

So things are going right and some of the misses are targets which are meant to be challenging, they're not meant to be easy so that the prison service can do them without hardly trying only just miss, so that the level of assaults amongst our population was the lowest level that I remember, only point one per cent ahead of the target.

PETER SISSONS: How much data is there about the number of drugs, the amount of drugs available in jail?

PHIL WHEATLEY: A lot of information about drugs in jails and drugs in jails worries me, and drugs in crime worries me because drugs is now sort of woven through quite a lot of crime.

PETER SISSONS: But it's extraordinary that it should become part of the culture inside our prisons.

PHIL WHEATLEY: We're taking people in we know that our population as a result of research that we've done independently, conducted research, that about three-quarters of our population have been using drugs immediately before they come in.

Just short of half of those using opiates and a quarter of those using them almost, well on a daily basis.

So we're dealing with a population who've been well into serious drug dealing, often multi-drug dealing, not just neat drug dealing. If we manage to reduce that so our level of opiate use, and we've been testing prisoners on random testing for a number of years and the level of opiate use is now the lowest level since we began testing.

PETER SISSONS: But do you turn a blind eye to drug use because to clamp down on it would cause trouble?

PHIL WHEATLEY: No we don't. And sometimes clamping down on it does cause trouble and we don't turn a blind eye.

We don't turn a blind eye because it's corrosive to run in prisoners that are decent. It prevents people returning and having any chance of going straight if they've been at sort of street levels inside. So we search hard, we supervise visits, well we use security intelligence.

We try and move prisoners out of open prisons where they can obviously get hold of drugs more easily, if they're using put them back into closed conditions, and we work very hard to keep the level down.

Opiate use - misuse by prisoners - is now at its lowest level. As a matter of fact, in society there probably is still a lot of opiate use and we know there is amongst our population.

PETER SISSONS: Why are more people committing suicide in jail?

PHIL WHEATLEY: It's difficult to work that out. Some of that is because of overcrowding, overcrowding, not so much the overcrowding, it's just the sheer pressure of numbers which means that we're moving people into a local prison from the courts and then moving them out very quickly.

Large numbers entering and with staff not having sufficient time to try to understand the individual needs of individual prisoners. So that's part of the problem.

But a very, very needy population coming in with mental health problems, severe drug problems, facing long sentences, often with, from their point of view, their life having fallen apart, and most of the suicide problems do relate to that period immediately after coming in to prison.

PETER SISSONS: How many of our prison population shouldn't be in prison, in your view?

PHIL WHEATLEY: Well, it's not for me to decide, it is for the courts. As I look at the people we've got and I go round prisons, meet prisoners, I've been working in prisons for all my career. There are not that many people I see and think I wouldn't have sent them to prison.

I sometimes look at people and think they've got very long sentences which are probably longer than I would have given them if I was sentencing them. But then this isn't for me to sentence and sentencing is difficult decision.

PETER SISSONS: David Blunkett wants to build more prison places. Is that a solution to the rising tide of crime? Well government claims in certain aspects crime is reducing but more and more people are meriting prison sentences.

PHIL WHEATLEY: Simply the numbers in prison have been growing. And yes, crime is reducing so in amongst all the stuff about the crime figures, the underlying trend does genuinely appear to be downwards and we are probably playing our part in that, but we're not the answer to crime.

We are one of the ways that the country deals with crime, one of the ways that I think you and I as we know people have been victims, think sometimes for serious offences that nothing other than prison would do.

But it's important we don't overuse it. It's expensive, it is disruptive to the loved ones of those who come inside, often entirely innocent families and children who find that their whole life has to change as a result, it's a difficult experience to get through. It shouldn't be lightly used.

PETER SISSONS: Just briefly, this job, Director General of The Prison Service, must be one of the most stressful jobs in the country. Why does anyone want to do it?

PHIL WHEATLEY: Well, I enjoy it. For what it's worth I have worked in prisons for all my career and to be in charge and able to influence the way in which the prison service works, a service which I care about and want to be successful, that is enjoyable.

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