‘A glimmer of hope but the challenges remain formidable’

Photos by Andy Aitchison, www.prisonimage.org

Photos by Andy Aitchison, www.prisonimage.org

The government’s prison white paper published this afternoon – Prison Safety and Reform – purports to be ‘a blueprint for the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation’. That’s a less grandiose claim than David Cameron’s February announcement of the biggest prison shake-up since Victorian times but ambitious none the less.

Do the proposals justify the hype?

Putting back 2,500 staff into a service which has shed 7,000 in six years is no more than a necessary corrective to a badly conceived programme of cuts for which Messrs Clarke and Grayling must take prime responsibility. It will enable a ‘new’ offender management model in which an officer will have specific responsibility for offering one to one support to no more than six prisoners. That’s neither new – it’s the old personal officer scheme – nor plausible, particularly in busy local prisons.

More significant are the plans for governors to have more control over budgets, staffing arrangements and what goes on in their prisons. As well as increasing their role in managing education and health care they will be able to introduce operational policies that fit their prison rather than having to comply to the letter with hundreds of detailed instructions. How far this will go is not clear. Could a Governor of a prison for long termers meet their responsibility to strengthen prisoners’ family ties by introducing conjugal visits for example?

Like much in the white paper, we must await the detail.

While prisons may welcome a promised bonfire of regulations, they’ll be less keen on the monitoring regime which will see league tables and stronger powers for inspectorates and the Ministry of Justice to step in when things are going wrong. There’s a lot in the paper about the clarifying responsibilities, creating transparency and measuring performance, complete with a plumbing diagram to show who does what in the system – reflecting perhaps Liz Truss’s experience as a management accountant. But the paper expresses surprise that there is no clarity over what that system as a whole should be delivering. A statutory purpose for the prison system will be created by the end of this Parliament, although there does not seem too much wrong with the longstanding duty to look after prisoners ‘with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release’.

It is 25 years since a white paper made such a wide range of proposals for prisons. The reform agenda from Custody, Care and Justice ended abruptly in the mid 1990s after a disastrous series of escapes. One of the inquiries into those found a time of very mixed ideologies within the Prison Service intent on increasing physical security but wishing to provide the greater element of care and positive inmate relationships which Lord Woolf’s report into the Strangeways riot had encouraged. Prison Safety and Reform contains a similar mix of ideas. More searching, drug testing and cracking down on criminality and radicalisation on the one hand; more rewarding incentives and privileges, increased work and training opportunities and greater use of temporary release on the other.

It’s hard to combine the two approaches but the paper’s acknowledgment of the need to invest in leadership and staff training offers a glimmer of hope that it can be done. The new prisons being built provide a chance to develop a safe and positive culture from the start – particularly five small community prisons for women which we will hear more about next year.

But the challenges remain formidable. One of the 1990s inquiries noted a yawning gap between the prison service’s ideals and actual practice. It’s got worse and whether today’s proposals go far enough in bridging it remains to be seen. Kenneth Clarke suggested in Parliament today it is unlikely unless his successor but two takes ‘the courageous decision to start addressing some of the sentencing policies of the 1990s and the 2000s, which accidentally doubled the prison population in those overcrowded slums?’ Many would share that view.

Author: Rob Allen

Rob is an independent researcher and consultant and co-founder of Justice and Prisons. A former director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, Rob is currently an associate of Penal Reform International

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