Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. A Tale of Two Prison Services

 As the Prison service prepares to make more deep cuts in its budget, two sharply contrasting views have emerged about whether the 146 prisons in England and Wales are in a fit state to shed more staff and reduce what they are able to provide for prisoners. Last month, Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick condemned Brinsford Young Offender Institution as the worst prison he has visited since taking up the role in 2010, adding to a growing list of jails unable to provide basic levels of decency and safety. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meanwhile proposed that the government’s management of prisons over the last four years should be disseminated across Whitehall as an example of best practice. Who is right?

Of course not all prisons contain the squalid cells and enforced idleness found at Brinsford. But a range of other prisons have come in for heavy criticism in recent reports – whether for the dilapidated state of the buildings at Pentonville and Winchester, the high levels of violence at Feltham , or the restricted  regimes provided at  the newly opened  private prisons Oakwood and Thameside.

The limitations of these two private prisons feature too in the report by Margaret Hodge and her colleagues which despite noting their poor performance is however a generally positive one. The PAC welcomed the fact that the prison service has achieved significant savings in running costs (which is certainly true) and also reported that improvements are being made in the way offenders' needs are met, allowing more of them to work and stay closer to their homes.

This is a far more questionable claim. In addition to criticising the two new private prisons, the PAC itself quotes Hardwick's findings that the quality and quantity of work, education and training across the prison system had 'plummeted' over the year 2012-3.  What they do not say is that the cost cutting on which they lavish praise is in large part the cause of the poor performance they decry. 

If the PAC had looked at the Brinsford report they would have seen the negative consequences of staff reductions; too many evening and weekend recreational sessions cancelled because officers were redeployed to other areas; inadequate supervision in the health care unit; and significantly in the light of Chris Grayling’s assurances that prisoners do not need books to be sent in to them, inadequate access to the library because of the lack of available prison staff.

The PAC make the point that  additional cost savings could be made if the prison service provided more offender behaviour programmes to help prisoners serving indeterminate sentences to be released at the earliest opportunity. Such savings would be even more substantial if the experience of imprisonment for all prisoners better equipped them for a life back in the community so that they are less likely to end back inside.

But rehabilitation programmes have an upfront cost which the PAC are unwilling to acknowledge. Instead by prioritising economy and efficiency over effectiveness, they are encouraging a further round of cuts rather than sounding a warning siren. Their investigations into the costs of Oakwood prison in particular have been cursory. The prison’s claim to be able to deliver the same regime as other Category C prisons at less than half the average cost has always seemed fanciful. As this level of economy is now being held up as an example for the rest of the prison service to follow, the case for it to be properly scrutinised is overwhelming.

 Earlier in the year the PAC recommended far greater visibility about the private sector’s performance, costs, revenues and profits. The Committee should put the private sector to the test and take a much closer look at whether the much lower budgets in their prisons are genuinely delivering what is required.  Alongside this the Prisons Inspectorate should look much more systematically at the impact of staffing and resource levels on what is happening in the prisons they visit.  These two assessments would help answer the question of whether prisons can sustain any more cutbacks

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