After spending 25 years in the prison service, John Podmore reflects on how local communities might create a new reality for prisoners, removing bureaucracy and encouraging engagement with the crisis we find ourselves in.
The prison service is in crisis and it seems to get worse with every statistic that the Ministry of Justice releases – not to mention every report from HM chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke. What is wrong is well documented. Any account of how we got here features the infamous Chris Grayling prominently, one of a seemingly endless list of secretaries of state and ministers who have briefly held the poisoned chalice that is prisons and probation.
- This is an edited version of a longer article that appears in Proof magazine issue 4 out today. The theme of that issue is the prisons crisis.
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I have been an ardent critic of Grayling but I wrote a book in 2011 entitled Out of Sight Out of Mind: Why Britain’s Prisons are Failing. It wasn’t a work of great prescience, merely a description of what I found at the end of a 25-year career in the prison service. Looking back, it’s clear that Grayling was presented with a probation service already laid out in its coffin – he merely nailed down the lid.
It will be a long way back. Many commentators cite overcrowding and the need to reduce the prison population as the immediate and only cure. This is lazy punditry. I have managed three jails over the last 25 years. All were overcrowded. I built new wings, doubled up single cells, trebled up double cells, put mattresses on gym floors, prepared plans for prisoners to stay overnight in court cells, and watched as prison vans circled London waiting for beds. Overcrowding is not acceptable, but it’s not a new phenomenon.
Yes, we need to reduce the prison population – to lock up only those we are afraid of, not those we are mad at. Prison is not for those whom the rest of society has simply given up on.
But we are immersed in a culture that believes new and tougher laws will change behaviour and act as a deterrent, that longer and even life sentences work. Once incarcerated people deteriorate to the point where the parole board won’t sanction release, we’re not about to get a sudden drop in the prison population any time soon. So what’s to be done here and now?
Governance is key to where the prison service goes next and there should, first of all, be a clear distinction between ministers and the chief executive. The former should set the budget and the strategic direction and be held to account by Parliament. The latter should deliver that strategy and in turn be held to account by the government. It is not for ministers to micromanage prisons but to appoint people capable of delivering a safe and just prison system.
For much of the past two decades, the prison service has been managed by people who have worked nowhere else, merely moving internally from department to department, many fleeing the operational line or avoiding it completely. Senior figures have never been encouraged or expected to take secondments in other fields, lest the purity of the HMPPS ideology be tainted. It has been a closed shop with external talent excluded.
Having spent many years with NGOs, particularly in the drug and alcohol sector, I have encountered some outstanding individuals who would have added much – for example, to the endless series of drug strategies the prison service has announced, only to watch fail dramatically. The door, however, remains closed to such talent in favour of civil service careerists impervious to challenge and debate. The prison service continues to work on the basis of ruthless, top-down managerialism leaving politicians in the mistaken belief that if they interfered disaster would strike. In case they haven’t noticed, it already has.
Whilst asking how the service is led is important, we also need to ask more fundamental questions: what and who prison is for?. Although the profiles of the 82,000 people we incarcerate continues to change, the structure of where we incarcerate them has altered little since the 1966 Mountbatten Report, which followed the escape of Ronnie Biggs and George Blake. It gave us the Category A, B, C, D system and the prisons to implement it it.
The last half century since has seen many plans but little change. The latest plan began in 2017 when the MOJ launched its ‘Four-Year Estate Transformation Plan’. It has joined forces with a company called Mace about whom little has been heard of before now. Despite the headlines about new prisons and women’s centres, there is plenty of scepticism about the viability of such projects as budgets continue to be cut and money is diverted to the prisons in greatest crisis.
But estate transformation and organisation is essential if we are to sort out the mess. The prison estate focuses primarily on the containment of adult men. It has done little for women, children, short-term and remand prisoners, elderly prisoners, and the 70,000 people who are released each year. At a guess, about half of the prison population is within a year of release. Therefore, open prisons might be more suitable for their needs rather than 21st century warehouses such as Berwyn.
Reformers continually plead for more funds but ignore the waste in locking people up in inappropriate, unnecessarily secure and therefore unnecessarily expensive accommodation. The emphasis is on keeping people inside, rather than meeting their needs by releasing such that they are less likely to come back. It’s only by looking at who we lock up and why that we can begin to reduce the prison population and begin to solve the crisis.
The difficult, the damaged and the chaotic
Of the roughly 82,000 people in prison, there are probably fewer than 30,000 who really threaten the public, who genuinely frighten us, from whom society needs to be protected. It’s only these prisoners who require the traditional forms of incarceration that we are most comfortable with. In my view, they should be dealt with under a separate structure: a national prison or ‘federal’ estate.
The remainder – the difficult, the damaged, the chaotic and the disordered who frequently move between prison, social services, drug and alcohol services, women’s refuges, hospitals and homelessness – are better looked after by the wider communities from which they come and to which they rapidly return. It’s tempting for a local authority to have a troubled child from their community sent to a prison which bears the cost nationally, rather than deal with matters locally in ways that it must fund itself.
In my experience, this approach isn’t something communities are comfortable with. The most rewarding time of my career was spent in Brixton – where a vibrant, caring and imaginative community was desperate to help me take care of its own. Sadly, austerity (which is no more coming to an end than climate change) continues to drive communities to short-term expediency to balance budgets. Whatever happened to ‘tough on the causes of crime’?
There is a case to be made that this part of the population and the local prisons that contain them should become the responsibility of the communities they come from. Why shouldn’t the mayor of London be responsible for Wandsworth, Brixton, Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs. He has control over many aspects of civil society that have failed and tipped many into the criminal justice system. Why should he not be responsible for that failure and use those same resources to help avoid social exclusion through incarceration and aid re-entry into the community?
Why should that same mayor not work with the courts who currently bear no financial responsibility for the disposals they make? Prison costs more than community punishment. Might courts and communities work together to question whether imprisonment is the best way of dealing with the ‘problem’? We have flirted with drug courts and ‘problem-solving courts’. Family courts have been very innovative. Instead of destroying our criminal justice processes,might the MOJ think more strategically about how all parts of its bailiwick might work together to benefit society rather than the treasury and the wealthy?
To make the major cultural change we need, governors of local prisons must become answerable to local boards, looking outwards to the communities they serve rather than upwards to bureaucracies that serve only themselves. Community facilities could also help provide re-entry opportunities for the vast majority of prisoners from the ‘federal’ estate who will eventually be released. We have more than enough secure facilities. This arrangement would bring into question the need for Berwyn 2, 3, 4 and 5 and might better divert resources to women’s centres, approved premises, bail hostels, city centre open prisons and models of supportive accommodation yet to be designed.
There are no quick fixes to the current crisis. There is no more money for prisons, no appetite for executive release or shorter sentences, and there is no desire for the parole board to be anything other than risk averse with the 12,500 prisoners on indeterminate sentences. So it is time to stop bathing in the warm glow of yet another trite pamphlet on reducing the prison population. A true sign of intelligent thinking about prisons is not knowing about the problem but imagining a solution.
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