“It would be a mistake for people interested in prison reform to simply see the opposition to that as ‘politicians are only interested in The Sun and Daily Mail headlines’. That dismisses people’s genuine concerns about crime and, actually, the way to win the argument is to say ‘we have other ideas and strategies here that would be more effective in reducing the numbers of future victims than having a system that turns out people worse than when they went in’.”

I was asking Nick Hardwick to what extent the media portrayal and public perception of criminal justice effects how offenders are treated. 

(Read Part 1 of my interview with Mr Hardwick here)

For the Chair of the Parole Board and former Chief Inspector of Prisons, it’s clear that those advocating prison reform must be willing to confront difficult truths.

“Traditional red top media has far less influence now than used to be the case,” he told me, with some politicians being more wary of this than they need to be.

But, it’s not just about the media.

“We should not dismiss people’s concerns,” Mr Hardwick said. “For a lot of politicians, the reason they will be concerned is they have constituents coming to their surgeries saying ‘the local kids are making our lives a misery on the estate, old people are afraid to come out’ or ‘my daughter was killed and the justice system doesn’t seem to provide me with justice’.

“Part of the answer for those people who talk about prison reform is to talk about those things as well. Part of the reason prison reform and improving prisons is a good thing is because they make those sorts of situations less likely. If we make prisons work better than you’ll have less of that and we have other ways to keep people out of the criminal justice system and we have less victims.

“It’s a real mistake to somehow have two completely separate conversations about victims’ rights and prison reform. I think those things come together and unless you have a narrative that addresses the whole thing, then you’re out of step.”

Mr Hardwick believes people should never be sent to prison purely as a means of rehabilitation as it is not designed for this.

“There are only two reasons why you should send people to prison – for punishment or for safety,” he said. “Because their offence is so serious, in my view, that we’re going to take something away from you, or because you’re too dangerous to be managed in the community.

“What I think is a mistake is ‘well, we’ll send this young person into custody because once we’ve got them in there we can make them better – control them, look after them and fix them’. I don’t think that works.

“Once you’ve sent people to prison or youth custody, that’s the punishment. At that point, you should be doing all you can in that environment to rehabilitate.

“If all you’re talking about is rehabilitation, you would do better to do that in the community than in prison.”


This week, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee warned the Government to “raise its game” in a report examining prisoner mental health. The “record high numbers of self-inflicted deaths and incidents of self-harm in prisons are a damning indictment of the current state of the mental health of those in prison and the prison environment overall,” it found.

Although official data on offender mental health in prisons has not been collected since 1997, it is widely accepted that people in prison are more likely to suffer from mental health problems compared to those in the community – whether requiring treatment in a specialist institution or in the form of conditions such as anxiety, depression or bipolar, which can be contributory factors in their criminality.  

How can an environment like prison ever help these people?

“There are some people who are clearly so ill that they can’t be properly looked after in prison and do need to be in a secure mental health institution,” Mr Hardwick said.

“The more difficult issue is the ones with more moderate problems. Of course, they shouldn’t be in prison, but if they weren’t in prison, where would they be then? For a lot of these people – who are very chaotic, with very difficult behaviours – there’s not that support available in the community to look after them there either.”

A policy of deinstitutionalisation in the 1980s saw the old ‘asylums’ for the mentally and physically disabled close, with an emphasis placed on ‘care in the community’. But, many of these most vital of support services have been eroded as the years have gone by.

“It would be very interesting to look at and compare the [numbers for the] total incarcerated population as we reduced the numbers of people that were held in the old lunatic asylums,” Mr Hardwick said. “I think there would be a real cross-over in those populations.

“Whereas, say in my parents’ time, they would have put you in an asylum and locked you up there, I think what we do with a lot of those people now is we put them in prison. Years ago, for some of those people, there would have been more community support. Now that’s much less likely to be the case. Parents and partners will struggle and so people are more likely to end up in custody.

“It’s not a problem prisons can solve. We’ve got to make the resources available outside and maybe one of the aims we should be thinking about is if we stop spending so much money on prisons, some of that money should be diverted into providing better community support for people who would find it very difficult to manage on their own.”


Mr Hardwick agrees that we need to have a more fundamental conversation in society about the purpose of criminal justice, but believes it is a difficult one to instigate – not least because we live in a “divided nation”.

“Opinion polling seems to suggest that people think the system is not punitive enough, but when you give them actual case studies and say ‘what sentence would you give in this case?’, they give a less severe sentence than the courts actually impose,” he said. “People certainly don’t understand what happens in prisons and what prisons are like. How could they?

“There is a wider issue about a divided nation where people don’t understand how other people really live in lots of ways. A large part of the population are in circumstances where they have very limited contact with the justice system. They are unlucky if they’re a victim of a crime, it would certainly be unusual for them to end up in custody.

“There’s other parts of the population who are much more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, in some cases, because of disproportionately. If you’re black you’re going to have a very different experience of the criminal justice than if you’re white regardless of your actual behaviour and what you’ve done. If you live on a deprived estate, you’re going to have a different experience of the criminal justice system than if you live in a leafy suburb and it’s very difficult for those different groups to understand the other’s experience and I think that’s unhealthy.

“The issues of justice go to the heart of a democratic society. Democracy works because you think there is a system of laws that will be applied fairly and proportionately which means you don’t need to take stuff into your own hands. There’s rules that most people most of the time play by. The more that system becomes undermined, the more dangerous the situation becomes for everybody.”

But, can our criminal justice system, with its black and white adversarial process, deal effectively with the greyness of human life? 

“All of [the] decisions are made by people so they are not these abstract decisions that are made by a machine somewhere, it’s human beings and that’s why it can deal with some of the ambiguities,” Mr Hardwick told me.

“If you have a very narrow segment of the population making those decisions then they are going to come out in a certain way that would be different if you had a wider, more diverse decision-making structure. If you don’t have that, I think you can have an unjust system.

“Of course, there are drawbacks to an adversarial system, but I think it is a good thing.”

Stopping short of calling for a public inquiry into the state of our prisons, Mr Hardwick does believe that the time has come for politicians to take a long, hard look at the system’s failings.

“At various times in the past, the prison system has got to a point of crisis where there has been a rethink. We may be at a point where we do need to have a fundamental rethink about what it’s for. Maybe this will be a good time to do it, because the debate isn’t so polarised. Everyone accepts there’s a problem, but what we can do about it is more complicated.

“As a society, we need to find a mechanism that enables us to think carefully about what prison is for because you can’t decide on the structures and resources unless you’re clear about the purpose.”

Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu