It is a photograph that Charlie Taylor shows everyone who works in jails: a 10-year-old boy, his arms wide open on stage and singing at the top of his voice at an end-of-term school concert. “He liked to perform,” says the country’s chief inspector of prisons.
The boy is now a man, serving 10 years for serious assault. Taylor, who was his head teacher at Willows, a special school for troubled children before he became the nation’s prisons watchdog, has kept in contact with him.
Like a guardian angel, Taylor, 58, has some head-teacherly advice. Seated in a whitewashed conference room in the basement of the Ministry of Justice, he says: “Get your head down, do your time and try to take advantage of everything that’s on offer. If you’re a prisoner who’s quite savvy, you can do that. You can manoeuvre or you can find work that is meaningful.”
The story tells you something about Taylor, a quietly spoken Old Etonian who has devoted his life to rebuilding the lives of those on the fringes of society, at risk of being lost to drugs, drink, criminality or family turmoil.
Since starting as a teacher, he has been driven “to piece together the jigsaw”, as he describes it, of why children misbehave and end up in trouble as adults. For the boy in the photo who was “probably brighter than average with loads of potential,” Taylor explains that “he had an incredibly complicated home life that was certainly pulling him in the direction of offending”.
The story also reflects Taylor’s own career trajectory. From a classroom trainee to special school headteacher, he has graduated to adviser to ministers, youth justice expert and now the chief prisons inspector charged with helping to sort out Britain’s crisis-hit jails at a time when spotlight on them has never been more intense.
Nothing could have epitomised the problems more than the break-out this month from HMP Wandsworth in south London by 21-year-old terror suspect Daniel Khalife, who is accused of spying for Iran.
He exploited security flaws at the jail to strap himself underneath a food delivery truck and sneak out. It has exposed what Taylor describes as the “chaotic” underbelly of too many creaking and cramped local jails, built more than 100 years ago by the Victorians.
In an ideal world, says Taylor, Wandsworth prison would be shut down. It not only houses 70 per cent more prisoners in shared cells than it was originally designed for, but has been struggling with rising violence, staff absence rates of 30 to 44 per cent, and inexperienced officers lacking “prison craft”, according to watchdogs. Most have less than two years in the job.
Yesterday it emerged that nearly 40 per cent of staff were absent on the day of Khalife’s escape.
“Prisoners regularly tell me that staff don’t know what they’re doing and that they have to tell them sometimes. Of course, that’s fine if you ask the right prisoner but if it’s not, it’s not going to go so well,” says Taylor. “What we also find is inexperienced staff being supervised by not that much more experienced staff.”
It is not just Wandsworth. The jail is among a third of the entire 140-strong prison estate rated as a cause of “serious concern” or “concern” by Taylor’s inspectors. Reasons include poor leadership, overcrowding, violence, self-harm and, perhaps most importantly for him, the lack of “purposeful” work, training or education that could help rehabilitate and rebuild the lives of prisoners.
As chief inspector, he is, literally, the holder of the keys. A big bunch of them that enables him to go anywhere he wants in any prison at virtually any time. He can open any cell and speak to any prisoner. And he does so, especially in jails where he knows his way round to get a worm’s eye view from the people who know: the prisoners.
“Prisoners always spin things a little bit, particularly when talking about their own personal circumstances. But if you find the right prisoner, you just get a brilliant assessment of the jail that can be really helpful. ‘This stuff is working well, this isn’t good enough, this needs to improve,’” says Taylor.
When he arrives at a prison for an official inspection, he explains: “I will stop a prisoner and say: ‘Which is the worst wing to be on? And then when I get on that wing, I find a prisoner and say: ‘Where are the worst cells?’ Because they will always know the worst wing and the worst cells.
“It’s about finding the prisoners who are locked away on the fourth landing right at the end of the corridor. Those are the ones you want to talk to, who haven’t been out of their cell for the whole day. Because then you get the full picture of what it’s like.”
Has he ever felt scared? “No, I’ve never felt that. In three years, I’ve come across just two prisoners who didn’t want to talk,” says Taylor, who, as a previous special school teacher, is trained in restraint. “Prisoners see us, to some extent, as someone who’s got their interests in mind.”
The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said the “degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” and, presciently given this month’s events, that “The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”
Those adages have their modern corollary in a quote which Taylor cites from a “fantastic” prison governor John McLaughlin, “sadly” now retired from HMP Oakwood, the country’s biggest jail with 2,000 inmates.
He ran a successful jail where prisoners were “trusted,” offered “more responsibilities” and given a “sense of purpose” through rehabilitative work, mentoring and training. “He once said to me: ‘If you show me the crime, I’ll be as shocked as anybody else, but if you show me the man, I’ll walk with him.’ And that was certainly what you felt about that jail,” says Taylor.
The antithesis to that is what Taylor cites as the old adage “that happiness is door shaped – that it is riskier to unlock prisoners and send them to work than to keep locked in their cells.”
Taylor sums up his philosophy: “Why should someone who’s in prison just be allowed to spend their day sitting on their bed watching television? They ought to be out there being busy, working hard, working properly, getting education. They ought to be being asked to take responsibility. And I think sometimes we take the path of least resistance to some extent with prisoners.”
Taylor, who lives in west London with his wife, a primary school teacher, and three teenage children, was a contemporary of former prime minister David Cameron at Eton. Taylor admits he felt “incredibly privileged” by his education with “amazing teachers,” but acknowledges it was “tough” being at boarding school from age 13.
His father was a management consultant who helped develop youth training scheme courses for difficult children, his mother worked in catering, and took tours abroad.
After graduating in English from Cambridge University, he trained as a teacher “because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do”. His first job was at Emmanuel Church of England Primary in Camden, north London. “To my surprise, I really enjoyed it.” It was where his interest was sparked into why children misbehave.
“Why was it that some children could cope, and were fine, and some children, even from the same family, would seem to always get themselves into trouble? It just became an interest that developed over time,” he says.
After moving to a secondary school, he gravitated to heading up Willows – during his time there, the school received two “outstanding” ratings from Ofsted.
“There was a huge amount of physical restraint of children. It was really about just stopping the whole place descending into chaos. The morning mission every day was stopping the children from running out into the playground and jumping over the fence and disappearing into Tesco,” he recalls.
Despite their tender ages, there was violence. “I remember one boy, he was only 10 but he was a southpaw. He was one of the few children who could really box properly. And if he hit you, it really hurt. The other thing I particularly remember is being spat at.
“It is one thing being hit but when someone spits in your mouth, and it is someone with a really bad cold, you never really forget that.”
In 2011 Taylor shot to national prominence after he was recruited as an advisor to the Department for Education (DfE), then headed by Michael Gove. His role there included writing two reports after the 2011 riots on school attendance (or truancy), and alternative provision (what to do with children kicked out of mainstream schools).
“One of the things that we found was that attendance of children in nursery is really critical. If you don’t get children to nursery in their first year of school they are going to struggle. If there is already a gap between their learning and the learning of others, it just begins to grow. They then begin to get disillusioned with school, they don’t make progress and quite often, they vote with their feet,” he says.
For Taylor it was a natural progression from the DfE and special education to working with young offenders as chair of the youth justice board in 2017 before taking up his current post in November 2020.
Although Taylor could be fairly described as a prison reformer, he is not someone who you would characterise as liberal. Asked, for example, if he supported former justice secretary David Gauke’s plan to end the use of short sentences of up to six months, he says it has the “potential for thought” but would be hard to sell to a public demanding justice is done and is “seen to be done.”
The argument from many governors is that they have too little time to rehabilitate drug-addicted, low-level criminals who steal to feed their habit and drop in and out of jail for just a few months at a time. The alternative, it is suggested, could be community-based and electronically tagged sentences linked to treatment and education.
“The public need to be convinced that it is fair, reasonable and not a cop-out way of dealing with people. I think something really important has to be done there because otherwise people will understandably just feel resentful when they see the person who did whatever they did out of prison and you don’t feel anything changed for that person,” he says.
Nor is it in Taylor’s psychological make-up to get depressed by the nature of his work, he says, even though he regularly sees “depressing things”. “You come across prisoners in a really desperate state or you meet members of staff who’ve been subjected to violence. Your heart goes out to those people and their courage. There is self-harm, deaths. You talk to officers who have had to cut down someone [after a suicide]. That is an experience that will never leave them.”
With a general election next year, it is unlikely, however, that either Tories or Labour are going to change tack with a “softer” approach to justice. If anything, policies on crime and punishment are likely to harden. Which means Taylor, who has powers to sanction failing prisons and force them to improve, will have to work within the constraints of the current system.
Ministers have committed to spend £4 billion on new jails to deliver 20,000 extra places by the mid-2020s. Two have opened but, for Taylor, spanking new jails alone are not the answer. “Too many prisoners, even at those jails with really good facilities, are just loafing around on the wing with nothing proper to do,” he says.
Taylor cites, as an example, what is known as wing cleaning “work” which up to a third of inmates can be allocated at jails. It is a job that “can be done in an hour or maybe a couple of hours,” but is sought after because it means they can avoid trouble by staying on their wing rather than coming into contact with other prisoners, or they might act as a “fulcrum for contraband,” and “they get all the gossip”.
“There are an awful lot of made-up jobs in prison that aren’t going to help anyone when they come out.”
Yet, it is not just about inculcating a 9am to 5pm “purposeful” work culture within a prison that Taylor advocates – there are also the basics like reading, he says. “Teaching reading and making sure that prisoners can read has been neglected for many years,” he says. “They come in unable to read, do a four-year sentence and leave unable to read.”
The other “cog,” he adds, is more focus on the quality of leadership within prisons where governors “drive” improvement and prison staff are imbued with a “belief” that rehabilitation is the “right thing to be doing” rather than “locking prisoners in their cells all day.”
He was particularly impressed with how the Dutch invested in staff training and the activities that prisoners were expected to take part in when he visited a jail in the Netherlands – although it was also notable the Dutch spent £100,000 per inmate to our £50,000.
Unlike head teachers, who have been given freedom to recruit their own staff and commission contractors, Taylor says prison governors are weighed down by bureaucracy which means they are “unable to buy a pot of paint without going through a procurement exercise as opposed to going down to the local B&Q to buy it.
“What governors tell me is that they spend huge amounts of their time chained to their computers, looking at HR issues, chasing up contractors, whether it’s the education or health provider, or the company that does the works in the prison.
“They have to chivvy them to try to get stuff done without really having the levers because the contracts are set elsewhere in the Ministry of Justice.”
Looming even larger, however, is the overcrowding crisis as the MoJ struggles to find enough prison places to meet the demand generated by longer jail sentences (there are now around 7,000 lifers), 20,000 extra police officers expected to catch and lock up more criminals and courts clearing the record backlogs of cases.
Asked to paint a picture, he identifies Brixton prison which he says has some of the smallest cells in the entire prison system (around 6ft by 12ft). “What is particularly nasty about them is that the lavatory is in the middle of the room,” he explains.
“So you have a bunk bed and opposite the bunk bed is a lavatory halfway down the wall and then a sink. The level of squalidity and crampedness for prisoners is pretty astonishing.”
Brixton is not even the most overcrowded in a prison league table topped by Leeds, which has 72 per cent more prisoners than it was designed for. Durham has 71 per cent and then Wandsworth 70 per cent, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.
In fact, the prison estate is only some 600 short of capacity. Taylor believes that at some point in the next three years England and Wales will run out of space to jail criminals. The MoJ already has police cells on permanent standby to pick up the overflow and is understood to have a secret crisis contingency plan if even this proves not enough. One option may have to be the early release of more prisoners on electronic tags.
Taylor sounds an ominous warning: “It seems at the moment that the prison service is just a bit about able to keep the show on the road i.e they have just about enough places for people who are sent from the courts and occasionally using police cells, but if the projections [of demand] are right, or even close to being right, then the bath is going to start overflowing.”
After nearly three years in the job, Taylor’s tenure is up for renewal. His reputation for forceful but reasoned counsel to Government, clearly focused advice to governors and an almost horse whisperer-like understanding of prisoners’ needs means he is widely expected to be appointed to a second term within weeks.
It will provide a dose of welcome stability to a criminal justice system that some claim is on its knees with public confidence in the police at its lowest ebb, the courts wracked by delays and backlogs and prisons plagued by overcrowding and staff shortages.
EMEA Tribune is not involved in this news article, it is taken from our partners and or from the News Agencies. Copyright and Credit go to the News Agencies, email [email protected]