Twenty-four hours after Martin Narey and I finished our interview, Lincoln Prison exploded. The director-general of the prison service was at dinner on the Isle of Wight when he took the call informing him of the worst jail riot for a decade. By 1am, he was on the ferry back to the mainland.
"I was pretty scared. Sometimes in these events, vulnerable prisoners have died. I was proud that it [the prison] was taken back without a single one being hurt." But by the time he reached the prison, two inmates were close to death from looted drugs. They survived, but a third man was found dead in his cell of a suspected overdose 36 hours after a rampage planned, Narey thinks, as an escape attempt.
Not quite Strangeways, but only the most Pollyanna-ish director-general could derive any optimistic message from such a disaster. Narey, who once worked at Lincoln, is trying.
"The Lincoln I knew 20 years ago was a terrible place. This is a temporary setback." One caused, surely, by overcrowding? "Overcrowding is a scourge, but Lincoln is not more crowded than most places. Of the prisons we might have trouble with, it's way down the list." If peaceful jails incubate insurrection, what portent does that offer for those that Narey once deemed "hellholes"? The prison population, now pushing 73,000, is the worst in Europe and rising exponentially. When Narey and I spoke on the day before the riot, he denied his service was collapsing.
"No, it's not. It's very, very tough, and it's worrying to see the possibility of all that has been gained in the last few years withering on the vine. But we're surviving and, indeed, maintaining what we've achieved." But he is baffled by the rise in prison numbers. "It has staggered me. This time last year, Home Office statisticians told me: 'Hang on until January, and you will be OK. There will be no rise in the first four to six months of 2002.' The population went up by more than 500 in that period, and it has just carried on climbing."
The problem, he says, is not money. Rather, the pleas of David Blunkett and the Lord Chief Justice to avoid short jail sentences have gone unheeded by the courts. Narey's remedy - more confidence in community sentencing - remains elusive amid media hysteria and hot-breath political rhetoric over crime. While Narey does not acknowledge the latter, he does not disguise some sense of horror. The suicide rate is "hideous", the proportion of mentally ill prisoners "shameful" and "the prison service has become the last social service".
Still, he is less an apologist than an evangelist. "Prisons are vastly improved and can turn people's lives round. I read in one paper last week that we have the worst prison service in Europe. We've probably got the best prison service."
Selling such a counterintuitive gospel is not for amateurs. Appointed four years ago, aged 43, Narey became the youngest prison boss and the most durable. His tenure has featured threats (he warned that he would resign unless governors backed his reforms), insight (acquired as a former prison governor and Home Office high-flier) and bullishness (he recently rubbished criticisms by the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, of Wormwood Scrubs.)
He is an odd mixture; part Whitehall-issue managerialist, part reformist with an almost Wildean concern for souls in pain. He has proved excellent (thus far) on prison escapes and good on drugs. On education and offending behaviour programmes, he claims heartening results. Others - citing unambitious and missed performance indicators - are less impressed.
But Narey's mission was founded on two bedrocks; tackling racism and suicide. On the first, he is still awaiting the Commission for Racial Equality's delayed report on the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham Young Offender Institution. On the second, he admits failure: "I have had 78 suicides this year. And I thought I'd turned it round. That's a direct consequence not just of numbers but of having to move people up and down the country. We can't identify the vulnerable as well as we could last year.
"The problem is immense. There were 91 suicides in my first year, then 82, then 72, all against bigger populations. This year, you will be looking at 95. We had spent a fortune. I'd diverted £11m from other things.
A year ago, I was celebrating and having a few beers with the Samaritans. We thought we'd done it. From October 2001, it started to unravel, and it has been hideous since."
Each time another prisoner, frequently a teenager, is found dead, Narey is phoned. "It is horrible," he says. A recent call came on a Sunday morning, at the height of the furore over the Archer diaries.
"I felt pretty angry. I was told that a 17-year-old at Parc Prison had hanged himself. For me still to be dealing with Lord Archer's diaries, which were spectacularly unrevealing, was a serious lack of priorities."
For the record, he thought Archer's light punishment appropriate, but resented the airtime he has had to put in on his "notorious" charge's licence and literary breaches: "Pity it wasn't about more important things, really."
Such as the suicide of teenagers. When an inquest jury recently returned a verdict of "suicide to which neglect contributed" on Kevin Jacobs, aged 16 and a Feltham prisoner, Narey mounted an emotional defence of officers trying to save a boy in despair. As he says: "We inherit young people where everything else has failed."
But here is the oddity. Suicide is rising, overcrowding rife and the reconviction rate for young offenders is 77 per cent. Amid widespread calls to imprison fewer children, Narey is all for jailing more. Indeed, he is actively competing for them.
"I look with great envy at the resources local authorities have for the care of similar young people. I have £40,000 to care for a 15-year-old. They have £160,000. I have just said this to Lord Warner [head of the Youth Justice Board]: 'Give me less than half the money that goes to the other providers, and I will provide the most outstanding care for troubled young people.'"
Does Narey want them all?
"That's for Lord Warner. He is the purchaser of places, and he wants to set up a market, which I think is quite right. What I tell him is that I think I provide better value than the alternatives.
" Some local authorities say they make money out of the Youth Justice Board. My job is to persuade Lord Warner and ministers that I can be trusted to provide a very good sort of care."
Even for young children?
"We don't take anyone under 15 and a half. Could we care for younger people? Twelve-year-olds, no. But if I had properly trained staff, I am quite certain I could care for people of 14 and 15."
As models of excellence, he cites pilot units at Castington and Hollesley Bay. "I defy anyone to show me better care for young troubled people," he says. But his ambitions are likely to appal penal reformers. The Howard League is about to argue in the High Court that locking up the existing quota of 3,000 teenagers is brutal, inhumane and illegal.
Though Narey does not think the Children Act "in its entirety" should apply to prisoners, he hints at some compromise. In general, he is polite but cavalier about challengers. "The one thing the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust are scared of is a successful prison system," he says. "That would really spook them." Anne Owers, his watchdog, is "redoubtable" and "outstanding" but, alas, in Narey's view, also open to error. He does not, for instance, concur with her view, in a New Statesman interview, that a "virtual" service based on aspirations occludes the bleak reality.
"I disagree with that very strongly. A lot of things are troubling, but we have made immense progress. Inspectors . . . say what they think should happen. My job is to make them happen. It's very significant that David Ramsbotham [Owers's predecessor] was offered my job before he was offered his. He was far too cute to take this one, which is much more difficult."
The obstacles facing Narey are not in doubt. Nor are his boldness and his optimism. But even for the most upbeat director-general, hope comes tempered by spectres of the riots that once bedevilled prisons.
"If the growth continues at the current rate . . . I will have to say to the Home Secretary: 'Prisons are simply full. In the interests of decency, order and control, we cannot take any more. Every day, my governors are reclaiming space; broom cupboards are becoming cells. But even with huge investment, we are only keeping pace. We are very, very close to being full."
I ask whether he would have any compunction in telling David Blunkett that prisons must close their doors, and he says not. "I have no choice. I would be seriously letting down the Home Secretary if I let things get to such a point that we lost a prison in a major disturbance."
Just over 24 hours later, the first flames rose from Lincoln.