The Maverick Minister Battling to Rescue Britain’s Prison / Telegraph magazine
The dog handlers at Wormwood Scrubs prison are feeling good. They and their canine partners have just found two packages of contraband that were hurled over the north wall during the night, but failed to make it across the high inner fence.
The loot is now laid out on a table. There is a bagful of small, one-ounce tobacco pouches that cost around £12 each in a high street. “Each one of these is worth £130 in prison value,” one handler says, meaning the haul of tobacco alone is worth about £7,500. There is also a black plastic bag of cannabis worth £13,000 at the inflated prices paid inside this West London prison, and two iPhones with chargers that would each fetch £1,000.
I would like to have talked to the handlers at greater length, but Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, is giving me a whirlwind tour of the Scrubs and there is no time. A wiry, tousle-haired man who once walked across Taliban-infested Afghanistan, he continues to march me, the governor and a small retinue of officials rapidly around the infamous Victorian prison that he is battling to improve.
We pass through windowless cell-lined halls full of track-suited prisoners whom he greets with a cheery “hi guys!”. We visit the textiles workshop that makes 1,920 grey prison sweaters a month, the barber’s unit where one hulking inmate is having a large red phoenix painted on the back of his bristly skull, and the classrooms where English teachers instruct some of the 65 different nationalities found amongst the 1,200 remand prisoners, petty criminals, sex offenders and murderers packed into the prison’s five wings.
The Scrubs has a dreadful reputation. A report from the Independent Monitoring Board last year talked of its “indecent” and “unacceptable” conditions, of “40-50 violent incidents occurring in a typical month”, of staff shortages, insufficient food, dirt, dilapidation and “too many prisoners...spending most of their day locked in their cells”.
A report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons condemned “the persistence of failure at this prison”. It, too, recorded “high levels of often serious violence” with more than 200 assaults in six months, filthy conditions, and “pervasive” staff shortages that resulted in “a failure to deliver even basic services”. An astonishing 24 per cent of inmates had failed random drug tests, and 14 per cent had developed a drug problem while inside [italicise] the prison. Early in 2018 one prisoner was stabbed to death and another hanged himself.
Is the Scrubs still that bad? Yes, and no. In the textiles workshop an elderly prisoner of Asian descent says he feels safe “about 70 per cent of the time...You have to be careful because people here have stress. There are too much drugs and too many gangs.” Stewart, who does not seek to minimise the prison’s problems, says more than 50 gangs still operate inside the Scrubs.
At lunchtime, when the prisoners are all locked up, we see them chucking food wrappings from their second- and third- floor windows into the courtyards below. Stewart is determined to stop the practice. “There’s absolutely no reason you can’t have prisoners out picking up rubbish. You have a captive workforce here,” he says.
We see cells with smashed windows through which prisoners pass or receive contraband, occasionally from drones, but also cells newly fitted with metal air vents instead of open-able windows that make such activities impossible. We inspect a grimy old shower unit, but also a shiny-tiled new one with partitions that afford the prisoners some privacy.
The number of prison officers has increased from 200 to 250. The cells are being refurbished landing by landing. The Scrubs is about to get a new high-tech scanner that can detect packages secreted inside people’s bodies, and a device called a ‘Rapiscan’ that detects mail impregnated with psychoactive substances like Spice. Non-flammable netting that the prisoners cannot burn down is being erected around the perimeter to prevent contraband being catapulted in.
“I think we’re about to turn the corner,” Sara Pennington, the new governor, says. “We’re finally getting the investment we need to move forward.”
Her staff are a little more cautious. On ‘D’ wing a prison officer tells me staffing levels are improving, but he still has too few colleagues to cope if the prisoners become aggressive: they would have to withdraw and wait for reinforcements to regain control. He has been “punched, kicked and bitten,” in the past, he says. “You have moments in which you are concerned for your safety.”
There are now seven dog handlers and 18 sniffer and patrol dogs, up from two handlers and four dogs in 2016. “It’s unrecognisable from two years ago,” the handlers tell me, but still not enough to combat the prison’s drugs epidemic.
An imam who serves the 30 per cent of the prisoners who are are Muslim tells me conditions have “improved immensely” but needed to. “We’ve learned a lot from the mistakes of the past.”
We sweep on through a blur of high walls, towers, wire mesh fences topped by coiled razor wire, clanging gates and steel doors, metal stairs, echoing corridors, windowless hallways and suicide nets strung below the landings. Indeed I am probably the only person inside the prison who would like to spend more time here. But Stewart is a man in a hurry. He has much to achieve, and a deadline to meet.
Last August he took a highly unusual step for a minister in this age of career politicians. He told the BBC that he would resign if he failed to curb the rapidly escalating violence in ten of England’s toughest prisons – including the Scrubs - within a year.
It was not an off-the-cuff remark, he tells me when we finally come to rest in the governor’s office. “It’s no good my saying the drugs and violence levels are unacceptable unless I can add ‘and I will sort it out’. Otherwise I am just sort of moaning like everybody else...By doing so I hope to crystalise the issue and put a sense of urgency in.”
Urgency is badly needed. The Scrubs is not some exception. English and Welsh prisons, which hold more than 80,000 prisoners, are in a desperate state. There were 325 deaths in custody in the year to September, including at least five homicides and 87 suicides, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own figures.
There were 32,559 assaults on prisoners and prison officers, 49,565 incidents of self harm, and 13,119 drug finds. More than 10,000 mobile telephones – commonly used for drug dealing, witness intimidation, organised crime and escape attempts – were retrieved. Those figures are almost all records - ten or 20 per cent higher than the previous year and double or treble what they were a decade ago.
Last July Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, talked of prisoners facing “the most disturbing conditions we have ever seen” - conditions that had “no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century”. Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, told me prisons are now at “crisis levels...many are out of control. They are infested with drugs, gang culture, organised crime and violence.”
Veterans of the penal industry doubt one minister can make much difference, but they do acknowledge Stewart’s utter dedication to the task. Far from sitting in Whitehall, he regularly visits the 100-plus prisons for which he is responsible. He immerses himself in the operational details. He spent the day before my visit to Wormwood Scrubs shadowing a prison officer on one of its wings. During our lightning tour he greeted several guards and prisoners by name.
“He’s certainly behaving in a way that’s unusual,” Peter Dawson, a former prison governor who now heads the Prison Reform Trust, said. “He’s really energetic and committed. You feel he cares about it. Prison ministers veer between people like that and others, probably more typical, who see the brief as an absolute nightmare and just want to get out of it unscathed.
Stewart, 45, is one of Britain’s more colourful politicians, and certainly the only one to have the rights to a film of his life purchased by Brad Pitt.
He was raised in Malaysia, educated at Eton, served briefly with the Black Watch, tutored Princes William and Harry while studying at Oxford, and by the age of 26 was Britain’s diplomatic representative in Montenegro following the Kosovo war. Some believe he worked for MI6.
An admirer of T.E.Lawrence, about whom he made a BBC documentary, he subsequently walked 6,000 miles from Iran to Nepal, staying with villagers. Following the US invasion of Iraq he became deputy governor of Maysan province. He spent three years in Kabul, establishing a charity called Turquoise Mountain at the behest of his friend, the Prince of Wales. By 35 he was a human rights professor at Harvard University, an informal adviser to the Obama administration on Afghanistan, and the author of two best-selling books.
Then, abruptly and surprisingly, he decided to run for parliament. Equally surprising, given his progressive leanings, he decided to run as a Conservative – attracted by David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and plans to ‘modernise’ the Tory party.
In 2010 he won Penrith and The Border. He spent the next five years on the backbenches. “I found being a backbencher very frustrating because I don’t like talking about things. I like doing things,” he says. But after the 2015 election he was made a junior environment minister, and a year later landed a two-pronged job as minister of state for Africa and international development that seemed custom-made for someone with his overseas experience.
In January last year, Theresa May inexplicably gave Stewart the prisons brief – an un-coveted job that many of his colleagues would regard as a form of incarceration in itself. “I was pretty surprised,” he admits.
The first prison he visited, Liverpool, appalled him. “It was absolutely unbelievable. On a single wing every window was broken. There were literally rats and cockroaches. There was a pile of garbage outside one of the cells. One officer said ‘it’s not our fault, it’s the prisoners’ and another said ‘there’s too much of it. It’s a health and safety issue. We’ll have to get a specialist firm to move it.”
But Stewart is consumed by a desire to achieve, to leave his mark, and came to relish his new position. “It’s one of the most challenging jobs in Britain and in that sense I’m happy to have it,” he says. “It’s the one job I’ve had in government where I might actually be able to change something.” By contrast much of his previous ministerial work was “at a very high level of abstraction”.
Stewart’s priority is to tackle the basics. “I’m betting a lot on the theory that I can bring down violence by pushing three factors – reducing the number of drugs, improving decency and living conditions in prisons, and improving staff training,” he says.
He believes he can tackle the drug problem at his targeted prisons through better interdiction: state-of-the-art body scanners and Rapiscans, perimeter netting, window grilles, more rigorous searches of cells, guards and visitors. He attributes much of the increased violence to the advent of Spice, a psychoactive drug that can cause extreme aggression.
Much of the additional £70 million the Justice ministry has obtained for prisons this year will be spent on improved living conditions – refurbished cells, nicer showers, cleaner landings, courtyards and kitchens. Smoking has recently been banned in prisons. In-cell telephones are being introduced – albeit with restricted calls. “I think people in a more pleasant space take more care of it. It reduces violence. It gives a sense that we know what we’re doing, that we’re professional and in control,” Stewart contends.
The government has also recruited 3,000 additional prison officers over the past two years, though that is still 3,000 below the total in 2010. Stewart accepts that the savage cuts imposed on the prison service by the Conservative coalition government in 2012 and 2013, were a mistake. “Obviously if we’re increasing the number of prison officers by 3,000 it’s because I believe we had that number too few,” he says.
More importantly, those cuts robbed the prison service of many of its most experienced prison officers – the ones who knew how to deal with aggressive prisoners, spot the vulnerable ones and glean intelligence. Of today’s prison officers 36 per cent have less than two years’ experience, while most of the new ones have been recruited on-line and given a mere ten weeks’ training at pop-up centres.
Stewart is striving to improve those training courses, with less theory and more practical work. “Previously many people would do the training course, turn up in prison, take one look and leave because they were so horrified,” he says.
The minister makes no apology for his ‘back to basics’ approach, though some experts are sceptical. “If you can’t get the basics right, if you can’t deliver a clean cell, if you can’t pick the rubbish up, then there’s no point in talking in very grand ways about beautiful things which appeal to the think tank community,” he says pointedly. “You can’t do rehabilitation unless you have a safe, clean prison.”
Stewart is "completely non-ideological" on the issue of outsourcing prison management and services. "We have some great public sector prisons, and some of our best prisons such as Parc and Altcourse are run by the private sector," he says.
But there is one major reform that Stewart does favour. Surprisingly for a minister of a party that once favoured the “short sharp shock”, he believes too many modest offenders are locked up instead of receiving community sentences. The prison population has nearly doubled since the early 1990s, putting huge pressure on the prison service and giving England and Wales the unenviable distinction of having western Europe’s highest incarceration rate.
The public must be protected, he stresses, but “people coming in for very short sentences are statistically more likely to offend than if they were not sent to prison at all”. They are locked up “long enough to damage them but not long enough to heal them. Bring somebody in for three or four weeks and they lose their house, their job, their family, their reputation. They come here, they meet a lot of interesting characters to put it politely, and then you wop (sic) them out in the streets again.”
He favours Scotland’s presumption against sentences of less than six months, but acknowledges he must first win the argument with his colleagues and the tabloid press.
Before leaving, I press Stewart on the criteria by which he will judge his success or failure this August. He draws a line rising at a 45 degree angle to illustrate the surge in assaults in his ten targeted prisons over recent years, and says it will have to have started heading downwards.
“I imagine that by the spring it will still be rising. There’s no sign of it stopping...It’s going to be a bloody difficult thing to do,” he says, and he may well have to resign. If this unorthodox minister succeeds, though, his prospects will be greatly enhanced. A robust supporter of Theresa May's compromise deal, he could well become one of that small band of younger, personable and pragmatic Tory MPs, untainted by association with either the extreme Brexiteer or Remain wings of their party, who have a real chance of leading it as it rebuilds after Brexit.