Full ‘Bombshell’ Speech: Expecting Prisons to Reduce Crime is a Pipedream says Former Prisons Chief

Address to the Annual Conference of the International Corrections & Prisons Association.
29 October 2019. Buenos 

By Sir Martin Narey

Delighted to be here in this wonderful city and fascinating country.

I want to thank Unilink for asking me to do this. I’ve been advising them for a number of years now because – as I’m about to explain – I’m convinced that a prison which respects prisoners, is much more likely be a prison which succeeds.  And Unilink’s work in prisons, initially in the UK but now spreading around the world, respects prisoners by using digital technology to allow them to take a range of day to day decisions, about how they spend their money, what they eat, when and with whom they have a visit, and recently and very significantly, whether and how they open up confidential exchanges with the Samaritans, the outstanding UK charity which does so much to reduce suicide and self-harm. Giving prisoners the ability to make for themselves such decisions restores a little dignity and respect to them. And at the same time, and indisputably, it saves money for correctional sevices.

Those who work in and around prisons work in a strange, largely secret, very occasionally rewarding, but more often depressing places. No one involved in prison management is often likely to achieve a sense of a job well done. There are few accolades for those who run prisons for whom, very often, a good week is one during which things don’t get any worse.

Many of us discovered this strange and fearful world of incarceration accidentally. Certainly, that was my experience. In the 1980s, I stumbled across a BBC documentary about Strangeways Prison in Manchester in the north of England. I watched it because I was going through that experience, probably familiar to many of you, of a social life which had ground to a halt because of the arrival of a new baby. TV tended to replace that social life and over one very significant summer, and in a documentary of breath-taking candour, the full horror of life for prisoners in a typically overcrowded and unsanitary prison in England was laid bare in eight one-hour instalments. Almost 40 years later, I still have video copies somewhere in my attic. When I first watched those films, in 1981, I was horrified, ashamed and – with the self-righteousness of youth – indignant.

Later that year, pretending to be interested in training to be a prison governor – or Warden, to use the more widely used term – I was allowed to visit a prison for the first time. It was just like the prison in the TV portrayal, but with an immediacy which only a visit could deliver. It stank of human waste as three men, sharing cells made by the Victorians for one, defecated in buckets. The handful of prisoners who were unlocked, and it was no more than a handful, were sewing mailbags. Staff, casually and openly, spoke contemptuously about the men for whom they were caring. Nobody I spoke to that day was alarmed by the conditions in which men lived or the absence of any opportunity to prepare for release. I should have fled and returned to the much easier, much more civilised, business of running an English hospital. But, as I walked out of that prison that day, I was certain that I didn’t want to do anything else with my working life. A few months later I started work as a Prison Officer, my first step in a penal career which was not only the longest, or the most challenging – sometimes near overwhelming – part of my working life. But also, the most rewarding.

16 years after briefly wearing a Prison Officer’s uniform, I found myself as Director General and Chief Executive of the Prison Service in England and Wales. I was appointed at a time of great optimism about UK public services and with unprecedented government investment in them. Prison and Probation got their full share of that largesse. I got on extremely well with the Government Minister then responsible for prisons and I persuaded him that we should invest massively in education, drug treatment and offending behaviour programmes. At the time, my greatest optimism was about our offending behaviour programmes: short courses for prisoners, delivered often for just a few hours, which early research suggested might get offenders to think differently, to be more aware of the effect of crime on their victims, and be less impulsive. We thought we were going to be able to transplant more rational thinking skills in individuals.

The investment did make an impact, particularly the investment in education which allowed lots of men and women to improve their literacy and numeracy and make themselves employable. Reoffending fell. But by a very small amount. For most people incarcerated during that period, when finances were not remotely the obstacle they’ve become today, the things we did to prisoners, the courses we put them including those which involved charities, made little or no difference.

Many politicians, many journalists, and a fair proportion of prison professionals would argue that, in that case, we failed. That if imprisonment fails to rehabilitate, it fails. As if rehabilitation was its only purpose. But I would argue that has never been the case. Imprisonment has never been just about rehabilitation. We also send people to prison for deterrence and, most importantly, for retribution.

We seem almost to be ashamed of speaking about deterrence and certainly retribution. But retribution against offenders is what holds our society back from a vigilantism which could all to easily descend into barbarism. Taking away offenders’ liberty, as a mark of society’s intolerance of criminal behaviour, is the primary role of a prison service. But all over the world, it is rehabilitation which is claimed to be the main or even the only purpose of imprisonment.

Despite a plethora of evidence which suggests that rehabilitation in a penal setting is unlikely, claims of success are made all around the world. In Singapore, very straightforwardly, they assert that their prisons “enforce secure custody of offenders and rehabilitate them.” In Chile they “contribute to the social reintegration of persons deprived of their liberty” In Botswana, the Prison Service insists that it provides “effective rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.”

Some administrations express an admirable and touching determination to make the dream of rehabilitation come true. In New South Wales, the service courageously boasts that reducing recidivism is their sole priority and – even more courageously – they have committed to reducing reoffending by five percent in the next four years.

Even in Texas they claim proudly that they. “promote positive change in offender behaviour and reintegrate offenders into society.” What the 25,000 prisoners in Texas who will serve more than 40 years before release think of that one can only imagine. Or indeed, the 216 prisoners currently on Death Row, or the families of the 565, men and women executed in that State since 1982.

Some of these rehabilitative commitments – like New South Wales’ are genuinely be admired. Most of them are simply vacuous. Some are concocted to attempt – generally unsuccessfully – to paint a veneer of hope or optimism on custodial experiences which are grim for staff and near unbearable for prisoners. But however noble or ignoble the commitment to making prisons rehabilitative, other than in extremely limited circumstances which are often impossible to take to scale, the reality is that it cannot be done.

The overwhelming majority of those we incarcerate around the world have led disadvantaged lives. Typically, they have had difficult childhoods, characterised by neglect and abuse. We now know that the trauma of such damaging childhoods can play out for decades. As adults, children who’ve experienced neglectful childhoods, often being cared for by different people as they’ve moved in and out of the public care system, will have attachment difficulties, finding it difficult to make relationships, to trust, to accept help or advice. And their lives will often be chaotic. Against all the evidence, we have to stop thinking that we can do short-term things to such individuals, particularly in the inhospitable environment of a prison, which can correct such embedded disadvantage, that somehow often in a few weeks or months, we can cure them. And, more pointedly, we have to stop pretending that even without – what in the penal lexicon – are termed interventions, that time spent in prison, however bleak and impoverished, will somehow change prisoners’ lives. It’s like taking seriously ill patients into a hospital where they sleep and eat, but receive neither care nor treatment, and hoping they’ll get better.

I know that some who listen to this or read this will protest and offer evidence of approaches which have been successful. And there are of course, some apparently impressive results for some interventions. But establishing a causal link, testing those successes through the gold standard of randomised controlled trials, is almost always lacking. But even if we were to accept that some brief interventions can address decade old disadvantages, I’m afraid – and to quote the Centre For Crime And Justice in the UK, that is simply evidence that

flowers do grow in the desert, particularly if well-watered. But that is no reason to believe that deserts are appropriate places for the cultivation of flowers.

As an accumulation of academic studies demonstrate, however well-intentioned the pursuit, rehabilitation in prison is generally impossible. Indeed, often, prison will make things worse and increase the likelihood of reoffending. I have never subscribed to the view of prisons need be Universities of Crime, but they do have a capacity to demoralise and institutionalise.

My contention might be seen, by some, as defeatist, or perhaps even morally bankrupt. I don’t think it is. Because if prison and correctional administrations the world over were to be realistic about incarceration’s limited capacity to rehabilitate, they might then put greater effort into making prisons better places; more decent places; more moral places. Places where, if members of our families, our children perhaps, were to be convicted of a serious crime, places where we could countenance them being held without it terrifying us (and them).

When I worked in prisons in England, and particularly when I led the service through what seem now to be years of affluence, I was desperate to demonstrate that prisons could rehabilitate. I railed against short sentences, which didn’t give us time to do what I thought were good things (unforgivably, in my first gubernatorial job in a prison for young offenders, I urged visiting Judges to send young men to us for a little longer so that we could turn them into bricklayers or welders).

But as my career progressed, I sometimes became frustrated at the way small-scale rehabilitative ventures in jails would be proudly displayed to visitors and to me when, most of the prisoners in that particular jail were living in shameful conditions and without any sort of regime. I remember one governor of a big ugly, Victorian monstrosity, where a culture of contempt for the incarcerated seeped out of the brickwork, proudly show me a bicycle repair initiative which employed about a dozen prisoners. It seemed to me it near blinded him to the horror of many hundreds of prisoners locked up for most of every day in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. He was a good man. But he was finding it easier – and more rewarding – to try to change a few individuals rather than change the prison. He was, in short, watering a few flowers in the desert.

The real challenge, and it’s a moral challenge is to run prisons which treat prisoners with decency and dignity. One of the United Kingdom’s most revered statesmen, Winston Churchill, might have re-packaged a quote from Dostoyevsky and passed it off as his own, but he was right to say that

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.

Keeping prisons clean, treating those we incarcerate with dignity and respect, allowing them a reasonable life within the confines imposed by a loss of liberty is a noble cause. But it’s not an easy one.


In the seven years I ran prisons in England and Wales, I made decency my priority. I had joined a prison service which was routinely violent, where a not insignificant minority of staff were brutal toward prisoners and where a greater minority were not themselves brutal, didn’t assault prisoners themselves, but walked away while others did. I wanted to pursue decency because it was morally required. I like to think that brutality was much reduced on my watch. But I never believed, even in my most optimistic moments, that it disappeared and – as I’ve said many times before – show me a prison governor or a prison warden who argues that prisoners in his or her care are never abused, and I’ll show you someone not fit to manage a prison.

At one end of the penal spectrum there are prisons in which respect for prisoners, whatever their crime, is the norm. Such places are few and far between. There are rather more prisons around the world which are at the other extreme, and where a profound lack of respect for the incarcerated is reflected in violence toward prisoners. Brutality in short.

In some prisons – and sometimes in some other settings where residents are vulnerable and powerless such as in long stay psychiatric hospitals or children’s homes – brutality can be endemic. But its potential is everywhere and even in the very best institutions, certainly even in the best prisons, individual staff can brutalise. The risk of that is always – simply always -present.

It’s often impossible to foresee. And the culprits aren’t necessarily recognisable. I’d like to convince you that the potential to abuse, is there in all of us and we need to run penal institutions in that certain knowledge.

When I was a young, naive and somewhat idealistic trainee governor in a well-regarded and generally caring prison for young men and boys, I knew that some officers assaulted prisoners. But I was comforted by the conviction that the overwhelming majority did not and would not. And I was entirely confident that some staff, whom I knew well, were not capable of violence.

Then, one night, I was called into the prison because a young boy, a child had self-harmed, cutting his wrists quite badly. I was sufficiently concerned to phone the senior officer in charge of the hospital. I asked him to leave his bed and come into the jail. I knew him well – I thought – and had spent many hours in his hospital discussing prisons and prisoners and their capacity to reform. We talked earnestly about the need to make prisons more constructive places and to understand that many of those in our care were primarily children. He was caring. He was a good guy.

But that night, within minutes of his arriving in the prison he launched on assault on this child which shocked me deeply. His apology to me was significant. “I’m sorry” he said, “I’m really sorry. You weren’t supposed to see that.” He sincerely believed that his omission had not been to assault a boy, but to have done so in my sight.

People, all people, not just a sub-group of flawed individuals can be susceptible to behaviour which is grossly out of step with their general demeanour and attitude to life. And it’s that capacity for individuals to be corrupted, to act out of character, which is what we need to be aware of. Those perceived as generally good people, who are considered by themselves, and by those who know them, as kind and caring can do terrible things.

I recently read a fascinating biography about a man born into a devout Roman Catholic family. As he grew up, and encouraged by parents who cossetted him, he developed a vocation for the priesthood. And although that vocation was never fulfilled, he considered himself to be a deeply devout Christian and with an earnest belief in the role of duty in a moral life.

That sense of duty drew him to the army and in the First World War he served his country with distinction. Promoted through the ranks, he became his country’s youngest non-commissioned officer. Wounded three times, he was awarded his country’s highest decorations for gallantry.

In peacetime he became attracted to the back to the land movement and pursued a farm-based lifestyle, in which family life was of primary importance. He married and had five children whom he was known to love very much. He became interested in photography and his biography is littered with photographs depicting a simple family, a life of picnics and ball games.

A few days before he died, he dedicated his life story to his three daughters and two sons and in a final message, capturing indisputably his love for his children, he told his eldest son to

“Keep your good heart. Become a person who lets himself be guided primarily by warmth and humanity… listen above all to the voice in your heart”

And yet this was Rudolf Hoess.

This loving Father and church going family man was the Commandant of Auschwitz and was responsible – as he later admitted to a court at Nuremburg – for the degradation, humiliation, and slaughter of two and a half million Jewish men, women and children, gassed by the Zyklon B Gas, the use of which he personally and enthusiastically developed.

It would be a comfort to us all if people like Hoess were recognisably monsters. But, mostly, they are not. People like us, here in this hall, including me, have the potential to do terrible things. And institutions which are closed, in which the incarcerated have few rights, or little access to justice or protection, will always be vulnerable. That’s why the challenge of preventing abuse and brutality is never ending.

Decent and respectful prisons of course have to be much more than simply non-brutal. But a prison which takes staff violence to prisoners seriously, where there’s no complacency about its potential, and where officers who transgress are invariably dismissed – and wherever possible are prosecuted – are providing a foundation for decency and respect.


Building on that foundation, a decent prison is one which takes seriously the cleanliness of the cells in which prisoners live and the lavatories they use. It’s about privacy when dealing with bodily functions. It’s about the ability to be visited by loved ones in welcoming conditions. It’s about access to books, television and cultural activities. Most of all it’s about the way prisoners are addressed by staff and the respect present in staff prisoner relationships. It’s about making a reality of the much-quoted observation that we send people to prison as a punishment, not for punishment.

I know that in politically charged administrations, decency can all to easily be caricatured as being soft on crime and providing no public purpose. One Government Minister would occasionally chastise me about decency, telling me that it wasn’t enough if reoffending wasn’t simultaneously reduced. It seemed to me, it was a moral challenge in its own right. But, at the same time, I believed that decency might provide the platform for some offenders to change their own lives. Subsequent research bears that out.

Decent prisons in which prisoners are respected seem to provide a foundation for prisoner self-growth. Indecent, unsafe prisons allow no such growth and further damage those who have to survive there. As the uniquely respected UK criminologist Alison Liebling (who I think is here today) has said:

It is important, whatever our overall attitude towards imprisonment, to understand the differences between prisons and penal systems that damage, and prisons or penal systems that support or repair.


Only once a prison has accomplished respect, humanity, safety, good staff-prisoner relationships, professionalism, and organization and clarity, does it become a place in which personal development – or engagement with the self – can take place.


In England, and during the time I was running the service, I was a frequent visitor to Grendon, a therapeutic prison and one of those which had promisingly lower reconviction rates than other institutions. Some prisoners with clinical needs undoubtedly benefited from the therapeutic, psychological based interventions which were available to them. But I believe more developed as individuals simply because they lived somewhere where they felt valued and respected and where, crucially, they believed their visiting families were respected and valued.

In such circumstances, prisoners will make the decision or not to change their own lives. This was echoed for me as I was preparing this speech by a UK governor who has managed the most challenging prison I’ve visited. Prompted by sight of the ICPA programme and the title of this address, Duncan McLoughlin, a retired Northern Ireland governor of some distinction, wrote to me and said this:

Only prisoners can rehabilitate themselves. The task of the prison is to present opportunities to them to make that possible. But… if a prison is to be a positive influence on a prisoner then that can only be achieved if we treat prisoners with respect, that we provide decent living conditions, that we make the prison a place where there is dignity, an absence of fear, and where there is a sense of self-worth and self-respect?

I might add that in my experience, treating prisoners with dignity can also take the anger out of prisons and prisoners, making order and control easier and riots and other disturbances less likely. Certainly, as my decency agenda took hold in England, instances of serious disturbances fell dramatically. Decent prisons become peaceful prisons.

So, stop fretting about rehabilitation. Politely discourage those who will urge you to believe that they have a six-week or six-month course which can undo the damage of a lifetime. The next time someone tells you they have a quick scheme which can transform lives (transform is the word of which you should be particularly suspicious) politely point to the research.

Instead concentrate on running good prisons. Meet the moral challenge of running prisons in which individuals are respected. And don’t believe that physical conditions, poor architecture, or overcrowding make decency and respect impossible. They might make the challenge harder, but prisoners are consistent in telling researchers like Alison Liebling that:

Relationships with staff both vary more, and are more important, in their day-to-day experience, than material conditions.

 If you run decent prisons, you’re less likely further to damage the disadvantaged, often wretched, and sometimes despised individuals we lock up. And you may allow individuals to grow, to take advantage of the educational opportunities you offer, to think about the employment programme you make available, and make the first tentative steps to rehabilitating themselves.

In support of that, and as a conclusion I couldn’t offer better evidence, than the reflections of a good friend of mine, Mark Leech. Mark wasn’t always a friend. For many years he was considered to be one of the most dangerous and difficult prisoners in the UK, spending 14 years inside, largely in solitary confinement. Since his release, and alongside becoming a successful businessman, he’s thrown himself into prison reform. He was a primary source of candid advice to me when I ran the English Service as he has been to my successors. Here’s his take:

Expecting our prisons to reform those who we throw into them from high-crime inner city housing estates, with their school exclusions, unemployment, poor opportunities, poor parenting and where gang, gun, drug, alcohol, violence and crime are embedded, is an impossible ask when the living experience in so many jails is one of disrespect and often abuse, violence and filth.
Sixty-one of the sixty-two
 prisons I was in were like that. Then I arrived at the one which was radically different. Where safety and respect prevailed, and where I was given the opportunity to change my life.

So, if you really want to change lives. Forget all the cures and innovations. Just make prisons decent and respectful, places where, perhaps, our children could safely live. And as you do so, some prisoners will take the opportunity to change themselves.

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