becoming a self in history, becoming a self in my street

Lord David Ramsbotham

Before Lord Ramsbotham was appointed HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2005 he had been a regular soldier for 38 years. He was head-hunted for the job two and a half years after retiring from the Army in the rank of General. Within a week of taking up his appointment, he carried out an unannounced inspection of HMP Holloway. He and his inspection team were so shocked by what they found there that they walked out in disgust. From that moment, Lord Ramsbotham told the unequivocal truth about the terrible state of the prisons and the complete misunderstanding amongst many with influence of what most prisoners needed. He then set about working to mitigate the problems and to support the areas of strength with every possible tool at hand including writing a book called Prisongate, The Shocking State of Britain’s Prisons and the Need for Visionary Change.

Because he was a General, there had been some discussion when he took up his post as to whether Lord Ramsbotham would maintain independence and objectivity, and tell the truth of what he experienced as his predecessors had done before him. He said of this situation, ‘those who thought I would not follow my predecessors in openly criticising poor treatment and conditions, clearly had not read my remit nor understood soldiers. Soldiers are taught to obey orders. My orders were to report what I found. I could only assume that those who were disappointed that I did so neither understood my orders nor wanted them obeyed.’

When I asked him what motivated him to behave as he did he cited two sources of inspiration. The first was an old school teacher who believed in truth and in asking the question, ‘Why?’ The second were words of Winston Churchill, who said the following in 1910 while winding up a debate about prisons:

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of a civilization of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the State and even of convicted criminals against the State, a heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless effort towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can find it, in the heart of every man – these are the symbols which, in the treatment of crime and criminals, mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation, and are a sign and proof of the living virtue in it.

Lord Ramsbotham was appointed a crossbench member of the House of Lords in 2005, where he majors on penal reform.

References to works mentioned are on the references page.

Image © TopFoto / UPP