The former director general of the Prison Service only got the job because no-one else wanted it, an inquiry has heard.
Martin Narey: Told ministers he had to talk frankly
Martin Narey said he inherited prisons which were a "nightmare" in the run-up to the murder of inmate Zahid Mubarek.
Racist psychopath Robert Stewart killed the Asian teenager in March 2000 in Feltham, west London.
Mr Narey told the inquiry into the death that head-hunters could not find anyone else to fill the prisons post
Now head of the National Offender Management Service, a key Home Office department, Mr Narey said: "The only reason I became director general is because no-one wanted the job.
"I only applied for the job because various head-hunters had approached people in the private and public sector and all refused to even look at the job."
Offered the post by Home Secretary Jack Straw, Mr Narey said he would only take it if he could speak frankly about how bad prisons had become.
"London was a nightmare," Mr Narey told the inquiry. "Wormwood Scrubs was a deeply violent, evil place. Wandsworth was not a violent place but it was one where the staff culture was utterly reprehensible.
"Holloway was in a permanent crisis, or very nearly unmanageable. Brixton was filthy with the most outrageously appalling health care. I could go on."
Home Secretary alerted
In an earlier hearing, the former head of Feltham's independent watchdog said her group had warned two home secretaries - Conservative Michael Howard and his Labour successor Jack Straw - about Feltham's conditions.
Lucy Bogue said she believed the lack of response from the Home Office contributed to the lack of adequate care for young offenders between 1998 and 2000.
But Mr Narey said he received political backing and resources after taking the post in 1999.
"I was very fortunate, a much more fortunate director general than [predecessor] Richard Tilt because I had a Home Secretary [Jack Straw] who promised me significant resources and delivered them.
"The suggestion that Feltham was not high on my personal agenda ... is simply just not the case."
Mr Narey earlier told the inquiry that he had been threatened when he began taking on racists. He had used his first speech as director general in 1999 to say he would make race relations a key element of a "decency agenda" for jails.
"There was a small amount of hostility," said Mr Narey. "I came across two governors in my time as director general who were hostile to what we were trying to do in changing race, but only two.
Robert Stewart: Serving a life sentence for the killing
"I came across some members of staff and I received some personal hate mail and indeed a threat to kill me.
"I knew there were individuals out there who were extremely antagonistic and we dealt with that in part by taking the unique step of banning the BNP."
But Mr Narey added that the Prison Service's recognition of race issues in 1999 stopped at filling in the paperwork.
"I described it as a 'tick-box approach'. In some respects, Feltham would have been less likely to cause a problem [in the paperwork] than some other establishments because at least there was a very significant representation of minority ethnic staff at Feltham," he said.
"I think throughout the service, with one or two laudable exceptions, there was a general failure at this point to seize race relations and ... to make sure that people's experience of prison life was the same irrespective of their background."
The inquiry continues.