The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham

The Chief Inspector of Prisons wants James Bulger's teenage killers freed as soon as possible. David

The relationship between General Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and the Prison Officers' Association has never been balmy. Lately it has come to resemble that of two ferrets in a sack. Ramsbotham is too extreme and too abrasive, according to a recent article by the POA chair, Martin Healy. "He doesn't seem to realise the damage he is doing to the morale of our members . . . and every other person who works for this agency," Healy grumbled.

Such criticism will not trouble the chief inspector, who has never wished to be known for emollience.There was a moment, four years ago, when the Ramsbotham appointment suggested that Michael Howard, then home secretary, had conveniently found himself a pussy-cat general to replace the troublesome Stephen Tumim.

"Rambo" Ramsbotham, formerly adjutant-general to the army, swiftly put paid to this misapprehension. First he denounced Howard's boot camps. Then he marched his men out of Holloway, declaring it too appalling to inspect. More recently he has produced a procession of harrumphing reports, decrying "rottenness and evil" at Wormwood Scrubs and condemning Werrington young offenders' institution near Stoke-on-Trent. "I have not come across such totally deliberate and unnecessary impoverishment of children anywhere," he wrote.

Such pronouncements have served to reinvent Ramsbotham as a passionate advocate of rehabilitation and a defender of the voiceless prisoner. Not for him the quaint old protocol that chief inspectors do not stray into political terrain. I ask him if this government and Home Secretary are more to his taste than the last, and he says: "Yes . . . he [Jack Straw] has created the climate for change in bringing together all the agencies for the criminal justice system. That is remarkable, though terribly slow.

"But there is an awful lot of other stuff going on. The reason I am finding the prisons in the state they are in is twofold. One is the prison service's own structure. The second is that no one knows the cost of imprisonment - how much is needed to provide sufficient work, education, drug treatment and so on."

He believes that the Prison Service - constipated by paper-pushing mandarins and over-powerful area management - must be totally overhauled. "It's an agency, but it's not functioning like one. There are too many umbilical cords into the Home Office. The biggest problem the Prison Service has got is its own management structure. An operational service cannot function like a department of the Home Office. Every time the director-general [the newly appointed Martin Narey] sees me, he asks why my people find all these things wrong and his don't. I tell him: 'Because I'm looking at treatment and conditions, and you are looking at compliance with budgets and key performance indicators.' I couldn't give a damn about those."

Though not the hearts-and-flowers liberal he is sometimes painted, it is clear that Ramsbotham gives more than a damn for the individual prisoner. One case, in particular, weighs on him. "There are two boys whose future is of concern to me: Thompson and Venables - the two who murdered James Bulger. They are 17. In theory they should be moving from the hands of the social services to the prison service. Where will they go, and what will their reception be? They should be guided into life in the same way as Mary Bell was, before publicity blew any hope she and her daughter had."

This seems heavily mined ground for a chief inspector. No case in recent times has proved more inflammatory than that of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables; recently deemed by the European Commission of Human Rights to have been unfairly treated during their trial for the killing of a Liverpool toddler in 1992. Initially the boys were given a minimum eight-year tariff by the trial judge, later increased to ten years by the then lord chief justice, Lord Taylor. This was raised further to 15 years by Michael Howard, whose intervention was decreed illegal by the House of Lords in 1997. The Lords' decision effectively invited Jack Straw to set a new tariff; a task he has so far declined.

Now, it appears, his Chief Inspector of Prisons is happy to save him the trouble by fixing it for him. Ramsbotham's preference - according with the original judge's over-ruled minimum term - is that Thompson and Venables should be freed soon or even imminently. "Once they have reached the age of adulthood [18], I would hope they would get as early as possible a release in order to give them some chance of making a life. The longer you leave it . . . the less easy it will be for them. People say life shouldn't be easy for them in the light of what they did. I acknowledge that. But they did it at the age of nine. I can't remember all my emotions at that age, and I'd be horrified if I was still held accountable for them."

So should they be free by, say, 18 (a date a few months hence) or 19? "Yes, about that. But they have no idea how to conduct themselves, so it (their release) has to be handled with extreme care." I ask if he has met the Bulger killers. "I have met Thompson. I formed a considerable admiration for the way he is being looked after and the way he has responded. He got a lot of exams, and he is a very good artist. I saw his work, and he is someone of some talent. What are we going to do with them? I would not wish them to go to some of the institutions I have seen."

Will the Home Secretary - mindful of public opinion - take a less merciful view on early freedom? Ramsbotham is hopeful that will not be the case. "Look at the way he dealt with his own son. That sent a tremendous message about Jack Straw."

Do not think, however, that Ramsbotham has no gripe with Straw's penal policy. Given that the jail population now stands at 64,000 - the highest in western Europe - are we not simply imprisoning too many? "I think we are. Immediately, there are four groups who, I believe, should not be in prison. The first is under-18s. The second is immigration detainees and asylum seekers. Prison is quite wrong. They have committed no crime, and there are more than 500 in there. The third lot are the mentally disordered. There are 1,400 in prison."

But Straw wants to lock up even those psychopaths who have not committed a crime. What does Ramsbotham think of that? "I suggest that is tiptoeing into fairly dangerous human rights territory," he says. Category four embraces remand prisoners who have spent more than 110 days inside. "I would let them out. They are clogging up the system."

Where is he on the mandatory sentencing on which Straw seems so keen? "I am uneasy about the increasing numbers coming in; particularly mandatory lifers . . . We do treat lifers badly. They can sit and rot in a local prison, and that is wrong . . . Some lifers have committed the one murder that's in them, so why not tag them and let them out early?"

On drugs, Ramsbotham is equally bleak. His assertion that current random drug testing is "useless" earned him the ire of the former Home Office minister, George Howarth, who complained that the chief inspector dealt in intuition, rather than fact. Ramsbotham is unrepentant. "He objected to my saying there are ten drugs barons in every prison. Actually, my drugs inspector tells me there are 20 in the big ones."

Ramsbotham is hopeful, none the less, that he is making headway against tangled bureaucracy, badly deployed resources and the Prison Officers' Association, which he would like to see stripped of its pay-bargaining role.

"I'd like an independent pay review body. Then the POA could really represent the interests of its members. It's very unfortunate that they are in nothing but a negative situation. They can't deliver anything, and that's a pity. They should be included in the prisons policy board. I don't say that would call their bluff, but if you put them at the top table and they blew it, you could really do them.

"They continue to do stupid things. Recently we inspected Dorchester, and they told the local paper that they would not instigate any change until the governor was changed. What the hell do they think they're doing? I tell them they have only themselves to blame for their image."

It is easy to see why Ramsbotham and the POA form a combustible mix. A bishop's son and a career soldier, his patch was Northern Ireland and his near-nemesis an IRA bomb planted outside his Kensington home.What damascene conversion turned a hard-nosed military man into a reformist inspector who spends hours talking to individual prisoners about their troubles and needs?

"I just didn't expect to find that prisons in this country were way behind the curve in terms of helping prisoners to get through their sentence and be released. What I found most distressing was that there was nothing positive . . . Everyone was ignoring the fact that prisons have only a set time to help people back into the community. I thought it a gross waste of public money."

Even now, despite his respect for Straw, he sees vast flaws and dangers. Overcrowding and lack of education and training remain, in his view, a disgrace. "Absolutely. And healthcare is utterly inadequate. The drug-care strategy is wrong. The fact that so many people are held miles away from where they are going to be released is mad."

It may be curious that such complaints are delivered not by an enlightened liberal but by a High Tory general once accustomed, as he admits, to "hammering" those who stepped out of line. That does not diminish the wisdom of his objectives. Whether a bitter and public slanging match with prison officers is the fast track to a more enlightened penal system is another matter.

This article first appeared in the 01 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham