I went to prison yesterday - of my own free will, I should add. A friend, who is a High Sheriff had told me that there was a dynamic free thinking Governor at Her Majesty's Prison Shrewsbury, so I invited myself along. I'd never visited a prison before and learned more about prison life in two hours than I ever expected to. I cannot write too much because it would be letting Governor Hendry down.
First thing that surprised me was that it was quite difficult to get in. By the time I'd shown identification, been photographed, handed over my mobile and been escorted in with heavy gates and doors being unlocked in front of me and locked behind me, I had a sense of what it must feel like to be an unwilling visitor. And it does disorientate.
When I entered the Governor's room, his PA said "Would you like a drink Sir". It could have been straight out of 'The Bill'. I answered weakly, "A cup of tea please". And then a very strange thing happened. A woman that I have known from my school days walked in. She works in a senior position in the prison. I know her well - but the last time we met, she was a schoolteacher in Newtown. I thought she still was. One part of my brain was telling me that I knew this woman, while another part was telling me this wasn't possible. Ridiculously, I had to ask her who she was. When she told me, I felt quite dumbfounded. She must have thought I was losing it.
Now what did I expect. An MP friend of mine had been there and had expected it to be rather chaotic. I'd expected there to be an atmosphere of resentment and sullenness. Both of us were wrong. There was an amazing atmosphere of normality. 300ish young men (mostly) locked up, with no access to women, or the drink or drugs that many had 'enjoyed' too much before their 'long stay visit' - and they all seemed totally nonthreatening and normal. They were reading, playing table tennis, learning various skills and working at producing things. I thought to myself "What a dreadful waste of human beings".
I was also surprised when the Governor told me that many prisoners arrive, totaal y shocked to have been given a custodial sentence. It seems that criminals are just about the most optimistic people when they appear before the judge or jury. They always think they are going to 'get off'. So they arrive in deep distress, wondering who is going to meet the kids from school, or look after aged parents, or feed the dog etc. etc. I'd never thought of this.
I've been asking several questions of myself ever since - and the biggest question is whether 'Prison Works'. Of course it works in that criminals cannot commit crimes (easily anyway) when they are locked up. But it only really works if the prisoners make a go of it after being released. I don't think I'm breaking any confidences when I say that this aspect of the job matters a lot to Governor Hendry. In the short run, equipping a prisoner to manage after release is hugely expensive, but if this greatly reduces the level of re-offending, it saves money and discord in society in the longer term. The potential for debate about how to deal with prisoners is huge - and as the governor reminded me, it was Churchill who said that it is possible to judge the state of a nation by the state of its prisons. After yesterday afternoon's experience, the issue of how we rehabilitate criminals is bound to become a consuming issue for me if I were ever to become a Member of Parliament.