Two hundred years ago, prison reformer John Howard recommended an austere, labour-intensive programme to rehabilitate criminals. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, shares his belief in austerity if not in rehabilitation. Our literary prisoner reports from insideby Peter Wayne / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
To the north east of Rutland Water, bounded by a triangle drawn between the market towns of Grantham, Stanford and Oakham, Stocken prison lies discreetly hidden from public gaze behind a razor-wire mesh fence. Opened in 1985, Stocken is a neo-Bauhausian conglomeration of flat roofs, varying heights, and vertical expanses of glass. As I write, the temperature outside is well below freezing.
Inside, where all is breeze block, corrugation and gloss, we’re not much warmer-especially at night when the staff have all gone home. But I must not grumble. The cold makes me work harder. I’m at the tail end of a 13 year sentence, presently punishing myself with a tough schedule of academic and literary deadlines. Luckily, there is a diligent and imaginative education department here, even though it is fighting a losing battle against budget cuts. A 13 per cent cut in the overall annual prison spending budget of ?1.6 billion, to be implemented over the next three years, has sent a host of governors scurrying around the various departments of their penal fiefdoms, looking for the softest targets.
Education-to many people merely a means of producing more intelligent criminals-has been the first to feel the cutting edge. Ann Widdecombe, the Home Office minister in charge of prisons, can appear on Newsnight (as she did in January) to reassure those who are concerned with more than retribution that basic education, information technology, art courses and evening classes will be preserved. But here at Stocken this does not appear to be the case. We lost all our evening class options at the end of last term.
Throughout the history of incarceration, the prison schoolmaster has had a hard time. Established under Robert Peel’s Parliamentary Gaol Act of 1823, education came under direct control of the prison chaplain for nearly a century. Religion and morality were about the only subjects on the penal curriculum in Victorian England; it was not uncommon for inmates to have learned by heart the whole of the Old and New Testaments. “As a privilege, they might when tired of reading, pick a little oakum-but this was quite optional,” wrote Edmund du Cane in Punishment and Prevention of Crime in 1885.
It was left to Winston Churchill to exhort his fellow Englanders to have “unfailing faith that there is a treasure if you can find it, in the heart of every man.” Churchill had been…