Article originally published in The Guardian by Erwin James on 23 January 2019.

By any measure our prisons are in a state of crisis. Last year, there were almost 50,000 incidents of self-harm among the 82,500 prisoners in England and Wales. Drug-fuelled violence is at an all-time high, with more than 32,500 assaults, 10,000 of which were against staff. At least 87 prisoners took their own lives, five were murdered and more than 300 died of ill-health or natural causes. The scale of the problem is not lost on the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, who has vowed to resign if he doesn’t achieve improvements.

One of the major reasons that there is so much violence is that there are too many drugs, and one of the reasons for that is insufficient perimeter security, says Stewart. He intends to make it more difficult for criminals to get drugs into prisons. Stewart is focusing on 10 of the worst-performing prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, Leeds and Nottingham, which he dubs his “ 10-prison project”. They have been given an extra budget of £40m to improve safety and tackle drug-taking.

“We have to move to airport-style security, where every single prison officer, every member of staff goes through an airport-style security check every day. Anyone, in fact, who enters a prison, including me.” Why? Stewart says this would ensure contraband is picked up, but more importantly, that staff who could come under pressure from a criminal, “sometimes it’s not that they themselves are criminals, but they’re being blackmailed, or their family is being threatened”, can then say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it because they are searching me every single day.” He also wants staff lockers to be outside the prison gates. “A single transparent bag, going through an x-ray scanner is all they should be able to take in. We should have a clear expectation that they put on their uniforms before going in – all of that needs to happen.”

But surely the obvious way to reduce violence would be to reduce prison numbers, particularly among those serving short sentences who make up the highest number of reoffenders? Stewart implies that he would like to scrap sentences of less than three months. “I’ve no doubt that the wrong kind of short sentence can damage the individual and ultimately damage the public because it can lead to more reoffending,” he says. It is “long enough to damage the person and not long enough to change their life”.

He cites HMP Durham, where the average stay is 10 days. “What is a prison supposed to do with someone in 10 days?” Stewart wants to be clearer with the public, as well as magistrates, judges and MPs that “the wrong kind of short prison sentence leads to more reoffending and endangers the public – it’s shortsighted. If you’re going to lock somebody up, then you need to have the time to do a proper intervention.”

Scotland has legislated for a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months. Is the Scottish justice system showing us the way? “I’ve been very impressed by the early stuff we’ve got from Scotland. I think we can learn a lot from Scotland, and we’re looking very actively at that,” he says. “Remember our legal system is slightly different – the way in which we’d have to do it would be slightly different. We’d have to bring magistrates, judges, the media and parliament with us – and it’s going to be tricky. But the fundamental point we have to keep returning to is that although somebody might think that giving someone a short prison sentence is good because it protects the public, it doesn’t.”

Stewart, like the justice secretary, David Gauke, still thinks prison can rehabilitate offenders, but recognises that too many prisoners spend most of the day locked in their cells. On the day we meet, an inspection report released on Swinfen Hall Young Offender Institution said that half of the young male prisoners were locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, which is par for the course. Stewart wants to bring back more vocational courses. “One of the reasons we’ve set up a whole new procurement system and signed up new providers is to give governors the freedom to say, yes there’s a demand in my prison for plastering, there’s a demand outside the wall for plastering – we’re going to deliver that. You can see it beginning to happen. In [Swinfen Hall] they’re learning industrial window cleaning. You can see in HMP Lindholm very interesting stuff going on with people studying architectural skills. In HMP Stamford Hill there’s construction courses, in HMP Humber there are people studying design, studying textiles.

“But there are other things we need to do as well. We need to make sure there are enough prison officers to safely unlock people and move them from A to B. Getting more staff in is going to be key to that. We currently have 3,500 more prison officers than we did four years ago. So that’s a big improvement.”

Stewart likes detail. So as part of his mantra of “getting the basics right” he has overseen the creation of a prison officers’ handbook at the 10 jails, which he plans to roll out across the prison estate. The aim is to set standards for how to conduct cell inspections, deal with a prisoner and ensure everyone has a decent living environment. A “standards team” will then work with inexperienced officers to explain how to do it. What does he plan to do about the scourge of drugs in jails? In 2017, almost a fifth of a tonne of drugs, 189kgs, were seized in prisons. Last year, one in five prisoners gave positive drug tests – the highest rate since 2006. That level of drug supply implies some level of collusion among some officers, surely? “By and large our prison officers are fantastic, the vast majority are doing a terrific job, but we do have some corrupt prison officers. One way of addressing it is to look at the internal culture, management training and leadership – the way you run prisons – and we are doing that. The second way is that we just have to make it much, much more difficult for people to get drugs into prison.”

The recent introduction of Pava spray has got the backs of prison reformers up. Was it really necessary to further weaponise prison officers? “It’s not about weapons, it’s about relationships,” he says. “If a prisoner is kicking the head of another prisoner, you need to do something.” At the moment there are only two choices available to a prison officer – they can wade in with their body, or they can pull a baton. “My view is that the spray is safer. Safer for the prisoner, safer for the prison officer. Because Pava spray is newer than a baton, people somehow believe that it’s worse than a baton. The reality is it’s much safer. You can kill someone with a baton. The laws of governance on these two things are identical. We’re not expecting people to use Pava spray in a way that they wouldn’t have previously used a baton.” A report on the pilot use of Pava though indicates that officers often drew the spray in order to enforce prison rules rather than as a last resort. “Certainly it shouldn’t be used to ask a prisoner to get behind the door. But when there is a threat of serious danger, having the Pava spray in certain situations can save lives. So I’m not apologetic about that.”

Is it true that new prisons will not have bars on the windows? “If we can design windows that you can’t get out of, that’s all that matters,” he says. “The advantage of not having bars is that you can have more natural light, which makes a huge difference. Very, very sadly we have far too much suicide and self-harm in prison, so we need to create more pleasant environments for people. I think it’s an opportunity to show the world what a really intelligent, smart, modern building can look like. That is good for prison officers, good for prisoners, good for families and good for the public. Treating prisoners well, turning their lives around, protects the public, saves the public from the misery of crime.”

But how do you get that message out to the public and get them on side? Recent reports of in-cell telephones and prisoners rearing goats and training dogs upset some sections of the popular press. “I’m a big supporter of in-cell telephones, a big supporter of goats and dogs,” he says. “I like all this stuff. I visited Rikers Island in the States and one of the best programmes there is dog training. Rescue dogs are taken in with a handler, and some enhanced prisoners can keep the dog on their cell overnight.”

But the biggest challenge is getting the public to respect the dignity of the humanity of prisoners. Is that too much to hope for?

“I think we’re getting there,” he says. “I think society and culture is changing. Increasingly when someone goes to prison now we’re acknowledging publicly that 30% have been in care, half of them have a reading age under 11 – when you begin to understand that a lot of people we’re dealing with in prison have mental health issues, a lot of them have had terrible childhoods – and they’ve done terrible things –you have to weigh these two things up. You’ve got to think about the victims, you’ve got to think about the public. But to prevent prisoners committing more crimes we have to understand them as humans, we need to understand their pasts, their mental state, we need to think about what therapy they could receive. We need to understand that prisoners, particularly a violent criminal who might see themselves as a heroic gangster, is often actually somebody who is in many ways suffering from very, very sad things in their lives which we can work with them on in order to change their lives. By helping people who have hurt us, you stop them hurting other people in the future.”

It’s a refreshing departure from Chris Grayling, who announced on his appointment as justice secretary in 2012 that jails would “no longer be holiday camps”. As we end our conversation, I ask Stewart quickly how significant the reduction in prison violence has to be to save him from resigning? He smiles, and answers quickly, “I’ve got to begin bringing it down. If it’s still going up in August – I’m gone.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 46.

Family: Married, two sons.

Education: Eton; Balliol college, Oxford (philosophy, politics and economics).

Career: 2018-present: prisons minister; 2010-present: Conservative member of parliament, Penrith and The Border; 2017-18: minister of state, Foreign Office; 2016–18: minister of state, Department for International Development; 2015–16: parliamentary under-secretary of state, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; 2015-16: member, environmental audit committee; 2014-15: chairman, defence select committee; 2010-14: member, foreign affairs select committee; 2008-10: human rights professor and director, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University; 2005-08: chief executive, Turquoise Mountain Foundation, Afghanistan; 2004–05: fellow, Carr Center, Harvard University; 2004: senior adviser, FCO, Nasiriyah, Iraq; 2003–04: deputy governorate co-ordinator, Coalition Provisional Authority, Al Amarah,Iraq; 1999-2000: second secretary, FCO, Montenegro; 1997-99; second secretary, FCO, Jakarta; 1995: joined FCO; 1991-92: second lieutenant, the Black Watch battalion.

Interests: Walking, history, trees.

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