On the 6th of March, Justice Secretary David Gauke delivered his first major speech on prison reform at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Previously the minister for Work and Pensions, Gauke replaced David Lidington during the last round of musical chairs— or if you like, reshuffle. Lidington had only held the position for seven months and had barely warmed his chair before being selected to fill the role left by May’s former deputy Damian Green, albeit under a different title.
The speech was articulate and generally well received, and I’ll go into that to some extent; but with the scale of the crisis engulfing prisons in England and Wales, I’ve observed two things: Both revolving doors; one for offenders and the other for politicians.
The Ministry of Justice has suffered growing pains since the last Labour government reduced the powers of the Lord Chancellor (2003) and created the MoJ in 2007. Last year Ministers told The Sun that the MoJ needs to be broken up because it’s ‘not fit for purpose’. The plan was rumoured to have significant backing amongst Conservative MPs but instead the department undertook yet another changing of the guard.
Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity that campaigns for change in prisons has grown tired with the governments’ politician swapsies, “We’ve had six secretaries of state in seven years,” she said. “No wonder the system is in chaos.”
This is true; our prison system is in chaos. An Observer investigation found that two-thirds of British prisons are providing inmates with inadequate conditions or unacceptable treatment and two in five jails are deemed to be unacceptably unsafe. Last year self-harm reached a record high of 42,837 incidents and assaults have reached a high of 28,165, 7,828 of which were assaults on staff. Overcrowding means we could see prisoners being granted early release, and with the Government’s failing privatisation of probation services the public could be put at serious risk.
Yes, probation has been privatised and yes it was a silly idea. HM Inspectorate of Probation said private companies commissioned during an overhaul of the service in 2014 were failing to properly assess the risk of harm in half of the cases, supervising thousands of released offenders with just one phone call every six weeks. Sky News reported that police and probation officers lost track of 485 registered sex offenders across Britain including rapists and paedophiles.
Some junior officers are reportedly handling more than 200 cases each, despite officials warning that a maximum of 60 can be taken on safely. Worth noting, our national probation service has been graded as ‘Good’.
If you’re struggling to sympathise with the plight of prisoners, you are not alone. Prison reform doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of public pressures as education, the NHS or Brexit. Prisoners aren’t considered contributing members of society; they’ve committed horrible crimes and consequently they’ve been removed from it.
But consider this; 99.9% of our prisoners today will one day be released back into society, of those serving shorter sentences (less than 12 months) 59% are likely to re-offend. Our prisons are throwing offenders into revolving doors and the cycle seems unbreakable. Re-offenders cost the taxpayer £15 billion a year.
David Gauke said in his maiden speech “I am clear that offenders go to prison as punishment, not for punishment. So, I want prisons to be places of humanity, hope and aspiration. I want prisoners to know that there is a route to a better life….”
I agree, but I’d like to see real practical ideas moving forward.
In the US, several prisons/jails are referred to as correctional facilities. It’s a broad and conceivably cold expression but the word ‘correctional’ is an adjective; these facilities do something—practically their very reason for existing is not only to protect the public but to correct anti-social behaviour and prep offenders for release and reintegration into society.
I’m not suggesting the US has a superior prison system, as it varies from state to state, but what are we actually doing to keep offenders, especially vulnerable offenders from returning to crime?
I grew a little impatient during Gauke’s speech, as when it came to rehabilitation, he leant on prison security and safety far more than I felt was sufficiently required under this subheading. Of course, all the basic human rights apply and clean, drug-free living conditions are imperative… but are prisons delivering life skills for out taxpayer sterling?
Finally—“We will shortly be launching our Education and Employment Strategy that will set out our approach to helping offenders get the skills they need to find a job and avoid the activities that landed them in prison in the first place.”
Weren’t we already doing that? – Not really.
Back in the 70’s with the creation of the Open University (which was welcomed in prisons) hundreds of prisoners found their qualifications and it helped them steer away from crime. The Prison Reform Trust research shows 20-30% of prisoners have learning difficulties and 47% of them report having no qualifications. In the past, many prisoners would have picked up additional qualifications whilst inside, this equipped to earn a living once released and break the cycle of crime. Today however fewer and fewer are taking up further education in our prisons. This could be due to prisoners aged over 24 no longer having access to free level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or above qualifications, and having to apply for loans.
Courses offered by the Prisons Education Trust (PET) typically cost £250 per person. Research by the Ministry of Justice’s Data Lab shows that people who receive a PET course in prison are up to 25% less likely to reoffend compared to a matched control group. Small change compared to £37,000 annual average cost of a prison place.
Education and skills could be, for the inmates at least, a spanner in the revolving doors. But if the new MoJ are only going to pay lip service to reform, our prisons will continue to deteriorate under the £3.7 billion budget cut, and the doors will never stop turning.