Human rights/prisons. Should we sentence our judges to prison?

Should prison visiting play any part in the training of a judge? How many of the judges pictured outside Westminster Abbey at the start of this legal year have ever been inside a jail? Should they be more aware of what goes on day after day behind the prison's walls?

I have just spent two years in prison – twelve different prisons to be exact – but I was lucky enough to come home at the end of each day.

I was interviewing inmates during research for my book, Criminal Classes Offenders at School. The book examines the links between failure at school and later offending behaviour and I had been given Home

Office permission to send questionnaires into 12 prisons and follow up the replies with personal interviews.

I carried out lengthy one-to-one, unsupervised interviews with 100 inmates, ranging from murderers and armed robbers to people serving a few months for non-payment of fines.

My brief was to talk about their educational experiences and ask them the main question: “Could anything have been done at school to prevent you being in custody now?”

However, conversations strayed into other areas.

A common thread ran through the stories, the bitterness and scepticism with which most prisoners regard the judiciary and I was unprepared for the fury and resentment in their words. The man or woman in the wig might be from another planet as far as the convicted prisoner is concerned.

This perception was as strong in the middle-class inmate as the lad from the inner-city estate. All shared the feeling that judges had sent them down without knowing or caring where they were going or what would happen to them when they got there.

How fair is this view? How aware are judges of exactly what happens to prisoners once they have walked down those steps from the dock to begin their sentences?

Prison visiting is something judges are encouraged to do just as they are encouraged to keep up contacts with the probation service. Every year on each circuit, judges have to attend an annual seminar, which is a one-day course run by the presiding judge, and the more enlightened of the trainers recommend prison visiting.

Similar recommendations might be made during the short induction course for those on the bottom rung of the judicial ladder. But there is no statutory requirement for prison visiting in a judge's training.

One senior judge I spoke to agrees that the judiciary ought to be more aware of what goes on in the institutions to which they are committing prisoners. “It's absurd to send people off to prison without having a fairly clear idea of what you are sending them to. And it could be argued that anyone involved in the training of others ought to know more,” he says. “When I was a presiding judge charged with the training of others, I toyed with the idea of organising some kind of prison visit for judges but I'm ambivalent about this myself because I'm not sure how prison governors would view a posse of judges turning up on their doorstep.”

Nor is it clear what good would come from any such arrangement under the present system.

The same judge visited a top security prison. “I went with another judge and we were put in the chapel on our own with about eight prisoners,” he says. “It was an opportunity for them to talk to us but we were not likely to learn much in those circumstances. I suppose prison reformers would tell us to go round prisons pushing open doors and seeing things people don't want us to see. But the fact is that only the Inspectorate can do that sort of thing. What happens is you get taken around on a tour by the governor.”

Barristers and solicitors working in criminal law will have been inside prisons to talk to clients in interview rooms, though they may have little real understanding of an inmate's day-to-day existence. But it is perfectly possible for those who specialise in civil litigation to become judges without ever having set foot in a jail.

The answer must surely lie with individual initiatives. The training of judges has already come a long way. Could senior judges not go even further and insist on a little non-judgmental listening from time to time?

Those judges prepared to cast off the majestic panoply of the law for a few hours and, perhaps by private arrangement with a prison governor, spend some time in ordinary conversation with inmates might make a real contribution to the rehabilitation process as well as improving their judicial skills.