A simplistic military attitude does not make for an effective prison watchdog

Judged by the manner in which he expressed his views in his interview with Mary Riddell (1 November), Sir David Ramsbotham is on the ego trip of a lifetime and trying desperately to live up to his Rambo nickname. Everything about the way the Prison Service conducts its business is "mad", "useless" or a "disgrace" and people need to be "hammered". Things are either black or white, there is nothing in between and everybody is out of step but him.

Unfortunately, running prisons is not quite as easy as Ramsbotham - who, I am sure, would describe himself as "just a simple soldier" - seems to imagine it ought to be, and his naive views are not helpful either to those charged with that task or to the Home Secretary, whose ire at his chief inspector's behaviour is, not surprisingly, beginning to show.

Leaving aside Ramsbotham's gratuitous pronouncement about the future treatment of the killers of James Bulger, what should cause most concern is his obvious lack of understanding of his role as chief inspector of prisons. The chief inspector is essentially the eyes and ears of the Home Secretary. His key function is to ensure that the Home Secretary does not have the wool pulled over his eyes by the professional managers in the Prison Service, whose natural instinct, when things go wrong, is to cover it up or find excuses for it. Most of what goes wrong in prisons can cause damaging political fall-out and home secretaries need all the help they can get in equipping themselves to challenge the Prison Service establishment about the way it is doing its job. And I speak as one who, as prisons director of personnel and finance, was at the heart of that establishment for a number of years.

It follows that, to the extent a chief inspector alienates the Home Secretary and the service itself by causing maximum public embarrassment to both, his effectiveness will be severely reduced.

Ramsbotham's views on how the service should handle the Prison Officers' Association (POA), his dismissal of the importance of financial control and performance measurement, his general rubbishing of drug policies, education programmes and so on, are more a commentary on his simplistic, military-style approach to management than they are on the Prison Service's attempt to make the most of what is always going to be, by its very nature, a bad job - as well as an incredibly complex one.

To quote Lyndon Johnson, Sir David Ramsbotham is supposed to be inside the (Prison Service) tent pissing out, not outside it pissing in. If he feels so strongly about what he is finding as he does his job that he has to speak out publicly, implying, by doing so, that his advice is not being heeded, he should resign - which is what he should now be contemplating.

Eric Caines
Brasted, Kent

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people