July 21 2022

What happened to Michael Gove ‘prison reformer’?

What happened to Michael Gove ‘prison reformer’?


Photos by Andy Aitchison, www.prisonimage.org

Photos by Andy Aitchison, www.prisonimage.org

One of the very first lessons any prisoner needs to learn is that imprisonment is all about managing disappointments. High hopes can be very dangerous in the slammer, especially when they are so often dashed. For those who have poor coping strategies this constant battle between optimism and disappointment can lead to depression, self-harm and even suicide.

  • This article was first published on Alex Cavendish’s Prison UK blog (here)

I share this knowledge based on bitter personal experience, so I suppose that like so many prisoners or ex-cons we should have known better than to expect any real progress when it comes to prison reform under Michael Gove. Although I was cautiously optimistic – in common with several of my fellow former prisoners – I have started to realise that we were dazzled by fool’s gold from an otherwise dismal pit of despair: the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

It is very nearly 10 months since Mr Gove took up his current government post as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. Having made quite a fist of his mission at Education, to be honest there were no great expectations that he would do anything positive. The general view seemed to be that at least he couldn’t be any worse than Chris Grayling, so that, in itself, was progress of a sort.

Others warned that given the new Secretary of State’s past enthusiasm for academy schools we might be in for an expansion of private sector involvement in prisons. On the other hand, proponents of education for prisoners suggested that at least there might be some modest improvement in the standard and scope of a service that has been cut back so severely that it now often offers little more than very basic literacy and numeracy, plus a few low-level vocational courses.

Toxic legacy
Then Mr Gove managed to surprise us all. He set about reversing some of his predecessor’s most divisive policies. Following a highly embarrassing defeat for the Ministry of Justice in the High Court in July 2015, Grayling’s controversial ban on prisoners being able to receive books was already under fire, but to his credit Gove not only widened prisoners’ access to books (by scrapping the entirely arbitrary 12 book limit), he then also scrapped the rule that prevented families and friends from sending books and audio books to prisoners directly. In reality, he simply ditched one minor element of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013.

Having fought hard on this issue and mobilised public support, it was entirely understandable that many leading prison reform campaigners came to regard Mr Gove as a ‘good thing’ and a potential reformer in his own right. In reality, all he was doing was behaving in a more reasonable manner, as most other Justice Secretaries before him had done, Mr Grayling excepted. By this sleight of hand, he managed to present himself as a much more enlightened individual than his loathed predecessor.

Of course, it is always a massive bonus for any politician to follow a genuinely hated previous act. A few minor, if high profile, concessions can work wonders in the short term. Indeed, I came to realise that much of Michael Gove’s positive press was purely down to him not being Chris Grayling, as well as his taking credit for ditching large swathes of his predecessor’s toxic legacy.

There was also a much greater spirit of apparent openness down in Petty France, the MoJ headquarters in London. Mr Gove was willing to meet with prison reform campaigners, deliver keynote speeches at their conferences, allow journalists to visit prisons and – pause for a sharp intake of breath – even ask advice covertly from a handful of articulate ex-cons. In public he managed to crack that slightly lopsided grin. Whenever Grayling had smiled it felt like he was a Grand Inquisitor about to preside over some horrific auto da fé. It genuinely seemed like a different era had dawned, a bit like Narnia after the death of the Witch.

However, no amount of positive personal press or glad-handing of campaigners is going to bring our dysfunctional prisons back from the brink of the abyss. Sometimes it seems that just about everything that can possibly go wrong behind bars is doing so: violence, drug taking, bullying, debt, self-harm, suicide and – in Secure Training Centres – alleged physical assaults on detained children.


A view of D wing from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. Pic by Andrew Aitchison www.prisonimage.org
There is still some occasional mileage to be had by scrapping odds and ends left over from the Grayling nightmare years. Personalised hi-tech electronic tags (ditched), the massive secure ‘college’ (ditched) and MoJ training for Saudi torturers and executioners (ditched), but the real challenges inside our prisons – overcrowding, understaffing, poor mental heathcare – remain unaddressed on the wings, as does the disaster outside the main gate that is Transforming Rehabilitation in the probation sector that deals mainly with low to medium-risk ex-offenders. Add to that the continuing fiasco over legal aid and Mr Gove’s positive balance sheet starts to look pretty uneven just ten months into his mandate.

No-one really believes that accumulated problems that have built up over many years, including crumbling fabric, too few staff and poor morale, can be sorted out overnight. Michael Gove doesn’t have a magic wand that he can simply wave over our dysfunctional prison system and reform it immediately. However, there needs to be a very fundamental discourse about what prison is really for and what outcomes are really desirable.

At present, most prisons offer little more than costly human warehousing in increasingly unsafe conditions. Rehabilitation is generally absent. During my own time inside in six different prisons from the south to the north-east, I can honestly state that I saw no evidence of genuine rehabilitation being on the agenda. There was just too few staff available to help prisoners coming up to release with accommodation or access to benefits, let alone offer any guidance on future employment prospects.

Not one of these establishments had any kind of resettlement unit. All had been closed in previous years due to budget cuts and links with external agencies were either non-existent or so rare as to be virtually the same thing. Even in an open resettlement prison dealing with both short-termers and prisoners approaching the end of life sentences or long fixed-term stretches, the lack of provision was painfully obvious.

Education provision and vocational training in closed prisons – even in its most basic form – was severely hampered by shortages of uniformed staff to act as escorts. Missed classroom sessions were becoming the norm in 2012, rather than the exception and reading recent reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons it is clear that in many jails the situation has got much worse than it was back in 2014 when I was released.

Add to that some spectacularly poor standards of tutoring and classes regularly disrupted by inmates who had no interest in attending but were compelled to be there owing to threats of disciplinary action and I think it is fair to say the prison education system hardly covers itself in glory. Yes, it is true that there are some notable exceptions, but they are highlighted in reports purely because they function in a manner that resembles a ‘normal’ learning environment. The sad truth is that failure and underachievement in prison education is now the norm.

In reality, there are only two viable routes to address the current crisis in our prisons: reduce the overall population – nearly 86,000 in England and Wales – or substantially increase resources, including staffing. Anything else is ultimately doomed to failure, as the former Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick correctly pointed out in his recent interview (here).

However, Michael Gove has now made that most fundamental of elementary errors for any politician. He gave a recent interview to The Guardian in which he allowed his pose as a genuine prison reformer to slip (here). In short, he told the truth as he sees it. He rejected the description of the present situation in our prisons as ‘a crisis’ – in common with his benighted predecessor who also preferred to live in a state of continuous denial of reality – and, even worse, he made the quite preposterous claim that prison reform was still possible without reducing the current historically high prison population.

If he really, honestly believes that to be true, then he has heard nothing when speaking to reform campaigners, to prison staff, to prisoners or to ex-cons. Moreover, he appears to have learned nothing from the many HMIP and IMB reports that must have landed on his desk over the past ten months.

Photograph by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

Recent official statistics released by the MoJ reveal the stark facts that violence in our prisons – both aimed at staff and between prisoners – is continuing to rise to dangerous levels. Specially trained Tornado teams were deployed to deal with serious violence or riot situations 373 times during 2015 – a massive increase on the 223 call outs in 2014. Simon Israel recently analysed these figures for Channel 4 News (here). That increase has happened mostly on Michael Gove’s watch.

We are also told that there has been, on average, a hostage taking in our prisons every week. According to the MoJ figures, there have been serious incidents of violence in prisons such as Leeds, Leicester, Parc and Wandsworth pretty much every single month.

At a time when almost every report by the Prisons Inspectorate or the local Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) warns of increasingly violent prisons awash with drugs and mobile phones, staff shortages are contributing to the effective – if temporary – loss of control in prisons across Britain. It can only be a matter of time before an incident of violence or a mass protest over poor conditions escalates into a full scale prison riot, with the risk that other establishments follow suit in ‘copy cat’ style, aided by news spreading via illicit mobiles.

All of this amounts to a crisis by any standard. Pretending that it doesn’t really won’t help to improve anyone’s morale or make the threat of serious bloodshed any less likely.

However, the grinning Mr Gove prefers to believe that tinkering with a few aspects of prison regimes, particularly education, is capable of turning round establishments that are clearly failing to deliver. In my view there is little point in focusing on rehabilitation if it involves little more than attending a few classes (if and when staff are available to escort prisoners) when there is often nothing but chaos and failure awaiting those being released outside the main gate on release.

The wilful sabotage of the probation service by Chris Grayling and his cronies for purely ideological reasons has done nothing to support any reduction in reoffending and any newly released ex-prisoner who is facing life on the street isn’t likely to remain offence-free for very long, especially if he or she still has drug or alcohol-related dependencies and/or mental health needs that will almost certainly not have been addressed while they have been in custody. Recall for licence breaches or arrest for new offences is, unfortunately, becoming more likely than successful resettlement, particularly for those serving short prison sentences.

Although I should have been better prepared for disappointment, I must confess to having read Mr Gove’s interview with Amelia Gentleman for The Guardian with a real sense of a historical opportunity being lost before my eyes. To what extent he is trying to keep on side with his own Tory constituency – the blue-rinse hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade from Tunbridge Wells – I can’t judge, but I do believe his comments have been deeply damaging to any serious hopes that he can truly deliver genuine prison reforms, especially now that he is leading a bruising political campaign over whether Britain should leave the EU.

I suppose like many others I was conned by Mr Gove’s apparent bonhomie, or perhaps I deceived myself. I should have remembered Alexander Pope’s excellent advice: ‘Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.’

I’ve been a prisoner, after all. I should have learned.