Of all of the public services facing austerity cuts since 2010, prisons have perhaps been the least able to cope. The often disastrous decline in standards in many establishments, public and private, is all too clear from seemingly weekly Inspection reports. Last week we learned that at Wormwood Scrubs, many windows are broken with some exposed shards, graffiti is widespread and many toilets are filthy. Three years ago it was an improving prison that had got many of the basics right. But even then, a few cells were in very bad condition and sometimes prisoners could not be provided with socks and pants. Little wonder that with budget cuts that have seen staff numbers fall by almost a quarter, the prison has deteriorated in almost every respect.
Given that what’s happened at Scrubs increasingly looks systemic, few would disagree with the Observer newspaper’s call for a complete overhaul of the penal establishment in England and Wales. An overhaul means a thorough examination of a system, with repairs or changes made if necessary. The question is who is to do it and what should be its scope?
As for who should do it, we need some new machinery. The crisis in prisons has revealed a failure not only of a public service but of its governance. There is no shortage of watchdogs but the Inspectorate, Ombudsman and local Monitoring Boards have been revealed as lacking in teeth. Parliament takes a sporadic interest but the Public Accounts Committee’s last foray produced the risible conclusion that the management of the prison estate should be disseminated across Government as a best practice example.
The Justice Committee is starting a long overdue inquiry into prisons planning and policies which they say will be an opportunity to consider in detail the current programme of reforms and efficiency savings. But there can be no great confidence that it will produce much more than a further catalogue of failure, with the danger of dividing on party lines as the election approaches. I have previously suggested a Royal Commission but as Harold Wilson said their problem is that they take minutes and waste years. If as the Observer rightly says the need for prison reform is desperate, we can’t afford to wait. A judge led inquiry like Lord Leveson’s could be a better model.
As for scope, the organisation, funding , standards and inspection of prisons and probation should all be looked at, with plans to sell off the latter put on hold until the inquiry reports.
There’s no doubt that any meaningful inquiry into prisons needs to look too at who goes to prison and for how long. Anything else would put the cart before the horse. Terms of Reference could be drawn from a recent British Academy Report which asks why and how we should try to reduce both the number of people we imprison, and the length of time for which many are imprisoned.
Today’s Liberal Democrat “pre-manifesto” proposes action on two of the proposals in the British Academy’s report -restricting the use of jail for certain offences and removing mentally disordered and addicted persons from prisons. Plans to “depenalise” drug use are bold and encouraging (contrasting with a misleading claim that the Coalition has delivered more prisoners working longer hours).
The promise to reform prisons, likely to be made in due course by all the parties, can only be achieved by these kinds of measures and others proposed in the British Academy Report. Any overhaul needs to consider how to achieve more extensive diversion from courts, greater use of alternative disposals, restrictions on short prison terms and shorter sentence lengths. Only then perhaps will we ensure that prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs can get underwear.