For my first one, I was bracing myself for a distressing life-changing experience - a real voyage to the heart of darkness for this suburban magistrate. You hear stories about the conditions, but no-one I know well enough to ask has actually been inside.
In this case though, there was no amount of preparation that could have prepared me for the surprising reality.
That it was really quite OK.
The prison is for younger prisoners (18-25 years old). The typical inmate is doing the last year of a longer sentence, and this place is something of a reward for good behaviour so far during their sentence. It is therefore not at all typical of the majority of prisons.
It's an Open prison, and even I could hop the small fence into the residential gardens behind the sports fields. Although I can't think why anyone would want to with all the education and entertainment provided inside. Car Maintenance, Plumbing, a decent library, cooking lessons and from time to time there's even a spot of Karaoke in the evenings.
The grounds were quite pleasant : a bit like the kind of technical college that you'd go to if your A-Levels weren't that stellar. The rooms were single occupancy and I've got to say I've stayed in less comfortable hotel rooms this year, although on the bright side I didn't have to submit to random searches.
One thing I learned from the visit was that inside this Guardian-reader, there's actually a Daily Mail-reader. He usually sits quietly but he was screaming in my head throughout this entire visit.
"These are Criminals ! Everyone of the these people has hurt a law-abiding member of society in some way and their victims would never stop throwing up if they saw what a cushy life these guys have.The Guardian-reader counters as follows :-
See the facilities ? Good luck getting that kind of training if you're law abiding. What's the message here - start with a life of crime and if it doesn't work out you get sent here and become a plumber?!"
Look, it's not to the benefit of the country that these guys hang from their thumbs and get fed on gruel. They're still kids and it's not in anyone's interest to give up on anyone by the age of 20. Educate them and instead of being doomed to swing in and out of prison, they might get a trade or see a possible future that doesn't rely on crime. One day maybe they'll even make a decent shot at being a competent father to their kids and it'll stop the whole sad cycle spinning round.It's a tough one, and the battle continues in my mind.