Friday, 17 July 2015

Fine Words Better No Prisons

Prison reformers are almost by definition optimists but the expectation placed in Michael Gove by those of us who want to see a better prison system seems to be in danger of becoming distinctly Pollyannaish.

Yes he (or more likely George Osborne) has knocked the absurd Secure College on the head.  And his talk about prisoners as assets rather than liabilities, and the importance of redemption mark a welcome shift in philosophy from his predecessor’s obsessions with making prisons cheaper and less comfortable. Gove’s gone out of his way to praise the Prison Service and today he floated a number of ideas for improving its effectiveness.

Some of these were interesting, though reheated. Enabling prisoners to earn release through involvement in education, giving prison governors more autonomy, and selling Victorian prisons to fund a modern estate were all proposed in the 2008 so-called Conservative Green Paper Prisons with a Purpose. Gove made clear these are ideas to which he is attracted rather than firm policies. Some may be sensible, others less so- all are technically difficult to implement. I’m not sure I’d like to stay in prison longer because a Governor has not provided the opportunities for me to undertake the courses need to qualify for early release. The POA and others are surely right to be a little sceptical. We all heard Ken Clarke five years ago promising that prisons would be places “of education,hard work and change”.  To coin a phrase, "Fine words better no prisons".

It’s what Gove didn’t say that is the problem. It’s easy to point at the disgusting conditions at Pentonville as emblematic of the challenges facing jails but that’s only a part of it. As the Justice Committee , HMIP and Lord Harris have pointed out a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes. With more cuts looming what is Gove planning to do?  How can he in good faith promise “an end to the idleness and futility of so many prisoners’ days” when he knows he will have significantly fewer resources at his disposal.

The obvious measure is to cut prison numbers or as Nick Hardwick put it “match the demand for custodial services to the resources available”.  As Gove will know by now, this can’t be achieved through tougher alternatives alone. Cutting sentence lengths is the most direct way of doing so but perhaps unsurprisingly there was nothing from Gove on this.  Reviving interest in Justice Reinvestment in which local agencies benefit from savings that accrue from reductions in prison admissions might be more palatable. But there was no reference to that either. Developing a more appropriate approach to young adults could also produce dividends in terms of reduced prison numbers just as it has with the under 18’s. But there was no mention of that and rumours are that the YJB may shortly be for the chop.

So despite his flowing rhetoric Gove's problem is more prosaic -not so much finding treasure in the heart of every man, but getting enough cash from the treasury to run a safe and decent system. Or shrinking the system so that it is.

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