An honest reaction to David Cameron’s speech on prison reform? Well, more meat than might have been expected – and a really welcome rabbit out of the hat in ‘banning the box’ for all civil service appointments, allowing ex offenders to compete on fair terms for several hundred thousand jobs. The Prime Minister robustly dismissed the myths both that prison is too soft, and that mass imprisonment might reduce crime.
But some very big questions remain for Michael Gove to answer over the next few months.
First, what does autonomy for six public sector ‘reform prisons’ really mean?
The Prime Minister said the governors of those six prisons would have their own budget and ‘total discretion over how to spend it’. A promise to allow them to decide who to commission education from is specific. But 80% of the budget is spent on staff. Will governors decide who to hire and fire, and what to pay them? Will they be able to build up reserves or, more probably, borrow in order to invest? And will they be able to charge more if they’re told – sorry, ‘asked’ – to take more prisoners or change what they deliver?
Second, we got the answer we expected about controlling prison numbers. The Prime Minister said it is a matter solely for the courts, even though it is political intervention which has consistently pushed numbers up for two decades. But even if that is put to one side for a moment, what about overcrowding?
The Prime Minister was explicit that new, properly designed prisons had a key role to play in changing outcomes: prisons on the template of academy schools. But does an academy put 45 prisoners in a classroom designed for 30? In 2000, a young man, Zahid Mubarek, was killed by his racist cellmate at Feltham and part of the Government’s response to that, published 10 years ago, was to say that it had a ‘strategic objective’ to end overcrowding. Overcrowding plainly represents a serious, maybe the most serious, obstacle to prison reform – now would be a good time for the PM to set a transparent performance indicator in the form of a date to end it.
Third, a sceptic would say that it won’t be that hard to find six prisons that can deliver a decent regime and impressive outcomes. Plenty of prisons still get good inspection reports, and protecting six places with a promise of secure funding and good staff can be done with ease. But delivering results consistently across 121 prisons is what has always defeated a national prison service.
So what will the commissioning and leadership for dozens of autonomous prisons look like? How will regulation and inspection work? If there is a need for someone to ‘step in’ when a prison is failing, who will be competent to make that assessment? And how will reform prisons be made accountable to the communities they serve?
Finally, while the Prime Minister asserted that there was no link between a rise in prison suicides and a decline in resources, the truth is that every important indicator of a healthy prison system has got worse over the last three years when resources have been slashed. The plans to build new prisons barely even match the projected increase in the prison population over the life of this Parliament, and the best existing prisons can hope for is to continue to make do with what they have. Whatever the PM says, resources are part of the equation.
There was much in the speech to work with – problem solving courts, more sophisticated electronic monitoring and satellite tracking both as an alternative to custody and as a way to bring forward release, a promise to find alternative solutions for the seriously mentally ill, and a recognition of the damage caused by the unnecessary imprisonment of mothers. There is an immediate opportunity to design meaningful indicators which will focus energy on the prison’s rehabilitative task.
But in an age of austerity, the resources circle cannot be squared unless we do succeed in using prison less. So in addition to these welcome innovations, there must be confidently used alternatives to custody at the lower end of seriousness, and shorter, more intense sentences at the upper end. There is no need to spend more – in fact, a more rational approach saves money in the medium term. But just as successive governments have made conscious choices which have caused the prison population to rise, so this government needs to adopt policies that cause it to fall. It may well be best described as the means to a sensible end, rather than an objective in itself, but Mr Cameron’s ambition to be the champion of progressive prison reform depends upon it.