Thursday, 29 December 2016

A Year in Prisons

A year that opened with David Cameron championing prison reform as a great progressive cause in British politics ended with a record number of deaths, a high profile escape, staff walking out and Tornado teams quelling a series of major disturbances. The first six months saw Michael Gove promising the earth but delivering almost nothing; the second Liz Truss scrambling for funds and ideas to repair the damage inflicted on the prison service by her predecessors.

Her White Paper may not have lived up to its hype, but she quickly recognised that getting more staff onto the landings is a prerequisite for anything more ambitious. Having previously argued that prisons should be tough unpleasant and uncomfortable places, she makes an unlikely reformer but deserves the chance to fix the mess she inherited.

Truss baulked at Charlie Taylor’s extravagant plans to reconfigure youth justice and has so far resisted proposals to reduce the numbers of adults in prison- not surprisingly for a proponent of longer and tougher sentences. Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and Jacqui Smith joined the list of politicians prescribing radical policies once they cease to have the power to implement them. Their call to halve the prison population received some support from Labour but they have form in calling for - and reneging on - a halt to the arms race on punishment. Michael Howard thinks it gravely irresponsible to slash prison numbers.  But even he says there might be room for modest reform.

Measures beneath the radar are probably the best we can hope for in 2017.The Sentencing Council could play a greater role in stabilising sentence lengths but problem solving courts seem to be on hold. It’s not clear how far the devolution agenda has to run in justice.

Probation could normally be expected to play a greater role in replacing prison but its reckless privatisation has left it struggling to cope with existing work let alone take on more. We will find out early next year if a review leads to contracts being torn up – or more likely tinkered with.

We are due a progress report too, on the 10,000 new prison places due to be built in  9 new prisons by 2020.  Don’t be surprised if these have been delayed. NOMS Chief Michael Spurr told the Justice Committee last month that it will be 2025 at least before prison cells hold only the number of prisoners for which  they were designed.   Prison reform may just about still be a great progressive cause -but it's a long term one. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Youth Justice Review : A Plumber responds to an Architect

There’s a lot to be said for the report of Charlie Taylor’s youth justice review, which has finally been published along with the government’s response; and one question. What will actually be done with it?

We learned yesterday that two secure schools will be created but when, where and in place of what remain to be seen. Ironically they are probably the least promising of the review’s recommendations. Despite mountains of evidence about the ineffectiveness of custodial institutions, Taylor has felt obliged to invent yet another species.  Approved schools, Detention Centres, Borstals, Youth Treatment Centres, Young Offender Institutions, and Secure Training Centres have all proved more or less expensive failures. The Coalition’s plan for a Secure College was quickly killed off by Michael Gove before he announced the review.  Do we need another variant?

From what little detail is available, Taylor’s schools seem most likely to resemble what are now known as Secure Children’s Homes (SCH’s) –small therapeutic  establishments , mostly local government run,  necessarily expensive and whose numbers have declined substantially in recent years. The secure schools will be bigger than SCH’s with 60-70 places – probably a mistake- but more promisingly Taylor wants to see more temporary release and lower security levels.  Reversing the decline in the number of SCH’s combined with serious reforms to reduce further the need for under 18’s to be locked up at all looks a better strategy than devising yet another generation of closed institutions . 

To his credit, Taylor does go some way down the demand reduction road, recommending an end to short custodial sentences, fewer remands in custody and young people- children first, offenders second for him– as far as possible kept away from the “tainting” effects of the formal justice system.  The review proposes that children under 16 should only have their liberty restricted exceptionally if they pose a serious risk to the public. On these recommendations the Government response is distinctly cool.

It’s lukewarm on Taylor’s proposed devolution of the costs of custody to local authorities, together with the power to commission the kind of services that children in trouble require. While recognising the need for greater input from health and education, Taylor thinks the mandatory model of Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) may be past its sell by date, inhibiting potentially more effective partnership arrangements. A logical consequence of devolution, that’s still a risky call in a climate of cost cutting. The government seem to recognise that an absence of a statutory duty to run a YOT, and the removal of ring fenced funding may produce not local innovation but the kind of neglect that required the dirigiste reforms of the 1990’s.   The result of this part of the review is…another review. 

The driver of those 1990's reforms, the Youth Justice Board, looks to have survived.  Taylor thought it could be replaced by a Youth Justice Commissioner in the heart of rather at arms- length from the MoJ, with a potential move to the education department. Instead, when it plays a part of the new review of governance, the YJB is unlikely to cast itself as a Christmas voting turkey.  

Taylor’s most radical idea is to have decisions about dealing with children in trouble made not by magistrates in a youth court –though they would continue to decide on matters of guilt and innocence- but by new panels akin to those operating in the Scottish Children’s Hearings system. These would not be mini courts- though some current JP’s could become members alongside others with experience of young people, in particular their education. Panels would draw up, publish and review plans for each child setting out not only their obligations not also those of the agencies responsible for their care and supervision.   The most serious cases would continue to go to the Crown court but with plans drawn up by the panels. 

It’s a bold proposal but moving from a “justice system with some welfare to a welfare system with justice” has proved many steps too far for the MoJ. What would be the biggest change to youth justice since 1969 is going nowhere. There are plenty of worthwhile recommendations which the Government can take forward  - better training for appropriate adults, improved legal advice,  less criminalisation of children in care , streamlined assessment and a limit on criminal records. More staff in YOI’s will be useful too, confirming Liz Truss as less of an architect and more of a plumber.  

Council of Despair?

How can we reduce the number of prisoners in England and Wales?    The government’s view seems to be that the 86,000 men women and children behind bars “is the result of the sentencing approach taken by successive Governments of different colours and there is no way to arbitrarily reduce the prison population”. Behind the scenes, Ministers who are not only responsible for sentencing policy but for the creaking prison and probation services which give effect to it , may be less sanguine. Privately they may well share the view of former Lord Chief Justice Woolf that “with the situation in our prisons today, we cannot afford to have further sentencing inflation.”

If ministers do want to at least limit the growth of prison, they could well ask about the role of the Sentencing Council- the body which for the last six years has been issuing guidelines to courts about the appropriate levels of penalty for particular offences. In a new report for Transform Justice – The Sentencing Council for England and Wales: brake or accelerator on the use of prison? - I look at the impact the Council has had on prison numbers and what more it could do to make sentencing more effective.

It’s true that the prison population has been fairly stable since 2010, but with a 25% fall in the numbers sentenced for serious crimes,  we should really have seen prison numbers go down . The reason they haven’t is that average sentence lengths have gone up for almost all types of crime. While there may be several culprits in all this, the Council has a case to answer. The Council’s own evaluations of the effect of its guidelines on assault and on burglary found that sentencing became more severe than it had expected. Guidelines may have stifled creativity by focussing courts’ attention more on aggravating factors than on aspects of a person’s circumstances which may reduce their culpability and make their sentence capable of being suspended.

The report makes a series of recommendations designed to encourage the Council to take a less conservative approach to its work. It could pay much more attention to the costs and effectiveness of sentences when producing guidelines, for example encouraging courts to go below the usual range if it is in the interests of problem solving or rehabilitation. Guidelines on the distinctive approach to be used when sentencing women, young adults, older offenders and offenders with mental health problems are sorely needed.

The Council – like all arm’s length bodies – should really have been subject to a review by the Government. But it has been exempt because of “its unique role in maintaining the constitutional balance between the executive, legislature, and the judiciary”. The nature of that balance was deeply contested when Lord Carter first proposed a Sentencing Commission back in 2007. MP’s and particularly judges were alarmed that over prescriptive guidelines produced with more than half an eye on the size of the prison population could unreasonably limit judicial discretion. 

Given the current prison crisis, the Transform Justice report argues that it’s time to open up this question again.  The Justice Committee which has previously argued for a much reduced prison population and reinvestment of resources into prevention and rehabilitation, should establish an inquiry into the role of the Council and revisit the desirability of linking guidelines to resources.  

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Alternatives to Prison - a Shot in the Arm or Shot in the Foot ?

The movement to cut the prison population picked up steam this morning when the Lord Chief Justice told the Justice Select Committee that “fewer criminals should be jailed and tougher community punishments developed as an alternative to imprisonment”. In contrast to Michael Gove, who last week called for a reduction in prison numbers having steadfastly refused to countenance it when in office, Lord Thomas is in a position to do more than talk.

As head of the judiciary he can exercise a strong influence on the 20,000 judges and magistrates who send people to jail. Unfortunately, he seems to have passed up the opportunity to persuade the Sentencing Council (of which he is President) to take a more ambitious line on alternatives to prison in its recent guideline on the imposition of community and custodial orders.  He might, however, look for an opportunity to issue a guideline judgment encouraging the greater use of community sentences.

The Chief Justice might say that his support for such sentences is contingent on their being tougher.  If he means that they should impose more and more onerous requirements on offenders, his positive intentions could easily lead to unintended consequences. The numbers spared custody at the front door of sentencing could be exceeded by those experiencing it via the back door of breach- a risk Lord Thomas seemed to recognise in respect of the post release supervision of short term prisoners introduced last year. If the Chief means the sentences should be , to coin a phrase , tougher on the causes of crime, he might be on to something.

Gove last week called for community sentences to be far better policed, with swift and certain sanctions for those who don’t comply. “Swift and Certain” is shorthand for an American approach to probation originating in Hawaii. It appeared in the 2015 Conservative manifesto but has yet to find its way into legislation. I’ve long had doubts about its applicability here, though these would be alleviated if the response to missing appointments or drug tests were not swift and certain periods of detention- as they are in the US HOPE Probation system- but more intensive rehabilitation efforts or lesser sanctions such as community work or curfews reinforced, if necessary, by tagging.

There’s a bigger problem of course which is whether the reformed probation service is able to step up to the plate.  It may be that the Ministry of Justice review of the new arrangements finds the new model fatally flawed, but its hard to see it being abandoned. The MoJ  may look to reinvigorate it by encouraging more diversion from prison.

We are told that the Community Rehabilitation Companies are struggling because the numbers of cases they supervise - and the fees that go with them- are lower than they’d expected. On business grounds if no other, they’d presumably be keen to get onto their books some of the 90,000 people sentenced to custody each year, as an alternative to custody and not just after release from it.

If that’s something the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice want too, it shouldn’t be beyond their wit to arrange it.  

Sunday, 20 November 2016

From Prison Reform to Sentencing Reform ?

Will last week’s events prove a defining moment in the history of prisons in England and Wales? The Sun thinks so, yesterday proclaiming that jails have become little more than a war-zone as the level of rioting, violence and drug-abuse reaches a tipping point.  Tuesday’s action by prison staff certainly represented a very a serious breakdown in industrial relations and whether these have been repaired remains to be seen. With the ink barely dry on a Prison White Paper  claiming to be the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation, it looks as if those who work in prisons are unconvinced that the measures it contains will secure their safety and that of the people in their custody.

Unsurprisingly, more radical measures are now being suggested. Former Governor Ian Acheson who reported on radicalisation in prisons earlier this year called in the Telegraph, for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to be scrapped. NOMS -  Nightmare on Marsham Street, as it was known when under the  Home Office-  was intended to break down the silos of prison and probation and ensure a better focus on managing offenders. Acheson argued that it has become “an unloved, unlovely bureaucratic monster, dangerously out of touch with its operational heartland”.

NOMS first Chief Executive, Sir Martin Narey widened the focus still further in the Times by arguing for sentence lengths to be reduced, giving support to Michael Gove‘s argument in his  Longford Lecture that “we need to work, over time and pragmatically, to reduce our prison population”. This is something Gove resisted when as Justice Secretary he could have done something about it. Narey is still  a non-executive board member at the Ministry of Justice so perhaps could persuade Gove’s successor to do something on prison numbers. But what?

I was out of the country last week speaking for Penal Reform International at two events in Central Asia.   Kazakhstan has halved its prison population over the last fifteen years through a comprehensive package of reforms- decriminalising and reclassifying offences, diversion of minor cases, reducing remand time, shortening sentence lengths, earlier release, a new probation system and community sentences. The country developed and implemented a plan - “Ten steps to reduce the number of inmates”.  True the prison population is still pro rata higher than the UK’s – 250 per 100,000 population compared to 150 – but the direction of travel adopted in Astana is now sorely needed in Westminster.

Of course, the technical elements of any Ten Steps in England and Wales will be somewhat different to Kazakhstan’s.  Next month, Transform Justice will be publishing a report I’ve drafted which will argue that the Sentencing Council which produces guidelines for courts should play a much stronger role in reversing sentence inflation.  Earlier Transform Justice reports have argued for a justice reinvestment approach which devolves custodial budgets to regions to incentivise local bodies to prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders and reduce the use of prison.  With radical changes like these, prison numbers could start to come down to a more manageable level. Without them, the Government might be tempted to emulate one of Kazakhstan’s less progressive policies; back in 2011 it moved the prison system back from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Interior.

Conventional wisdom is that politicians who adopt a soft approach will be slaughtered in the media and the polls.  But the Sun on Sunday said today  “Our jails are stuffed with too many non-dangerous criminals…” That's as much of an  invitation to sentencing reform you are likely to get.        

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Forget about the price tag? What to look for in the Prisons White Paper

Today’s meeting between Liz Truss and the POA will have come too late to influence the contents of tomorrow’s White Paper, but prison staff and those of us who care about prisons will be looking at two key elements if we are to have confidence in the government’s plans for the beleaguered service

First will it include a costed plan for properly staffing jails? It’s quite clear that in the Coalition years, faced with wholesale privatisation, public prisons accepted staffing levels in many cases too low to be safe, let alone achieve the lofty objectives subsequently promised by Messrs Gove and Cameron. While Mr Grayling is the main villain of the piece as the author of the Faustian pact forced on the service, Ken Clarke bears some blame for reaching too stringent a financial settlement with the Treasury back in 2010.  When his plans for reducing prison numbers crashed and burned, the funds were not adjusted upwards to cope with new projections.

Six years on, the bottom line is that the benchmarking exercise which helped take a billion pounds out of the NOMS budget needs redoing and the resources found to fund what results from it. Just as  the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) were asked after the Mid Staffs Hospital disaster to look at safe staffing for nursing in adult inpatient wards in acute hospitals, an independent body should do so in respect of prisons. With an advisory board comprising personnel at all levels and ex prisoners, it should look seriously at how many staff are required to meet the expectations set by Prison Inspectors and the various recommendations made by them and the Ombudsman. Benchmarking Mark Two should be completed by Easter. 

An alternative would be to return to 2010 frontline staffing levels- something recommended by last week's admirable RSA report. But whether Ms Truss has persuaded the Treasury to provide much in the way of additional cash must be doubtful. Her Permanent Secretary told the Justice Committee a fortnight ago that “the subject we talk about most in my executive committee is improving our finances and bearing down on the gap between our allocation and our projected spend.”

This means the White Paper must propose ways of reducing the prison population, the second and more controversial matter.  I have argued that replacing short sentences with community supervision may be desirable but will not provide enough relief. In addition the Ministry will need to look to halt the upward drift in sentence lengths. A report I’ve written for Transform Justice, to be published next month, will argue that the time is right to revisit the aims and purposes of the Sentencing Council in order to reduce the extent to which courts impose imprisonment and the lengths of its terms.   Ms Truss previously argued for longer sentences and tougher prisons but wherever she once wanted the ship of penal policy to go, she surely knows now her job is to keep it afloat.

Without manageable prisoner numbers and enough staff, the governor autonomy agenda – now known as empowerment – will not get prison reform very far.  Nor will the £1.3 billion capital programme for 9 new prisons which are supposed to be completed by 2020. Expect some re-profiling of this. If Treasury rules allow, some of the funds could be used to boost the budgets for running existing prisons (and the new prison at Wrexham) more safely and  for pump priming measures to divert low risk offenders from prison. This must be the priority for Ms Truss over the lifetime of the parliament rather than the grandiose schemes of her predecessor.     

Monday, 31 October 2016

Why we need more short prison sentences not fewer

Yesterday’s Observer rightly called for sentencing reform in order to solve the deepening crisis in the prisons in England and Wales. But as so often their proposals do not go nearly far enough. Their solution is to reduce the number of people serving short sentences for minor crimes. Of course that’s a good idea but at the end of last month fewer than 7,000 out of the 85,000 people in prison were serving sentences of less than a year.  Take the lot out tomorrow and we’d still be left with a prison population well in excess of the system’s 75,000 capacity.

It’s true that over half of those admitted to prison are serving short sentences so cutting numbers would take the strain off  local prisons as well as sparing some of the 50,000 petty offenders a year the indignities of doing time in them. Whether the controversial probation reforms have made it more likely that such offenders can be effectively supervised in the community instead seems increasingly open to doubt.

But the real requirement for a manageable prison population are reductions in the lengths of sentences being imposed. Since 2010, the average length of prison sentences went up from 16.2 months to 19 months.  Jail terms  have got longer not only for violent and sexual crimes but for theft and drug offences too. It is prisoners facing longer terms- particularly but not exclusively those with indeterminate sentences-  who are bearing the adverse consequences of the reckless staff reductions in prisons.

So yes to sentencing reform but it needs to focus not simply on bringing about  fewer short sentences but, in a sense on producing more of them - but at the expense of the longer terms that are  increasingly being imposed by courts. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Turning the Heat on the Ministry of Justice?

It used to be one of Whitehall and Westminster’s little secrets that witnesses appearing before Select Committees are told what they’re going to be asked. Nothing could be put in writing but in my day a committee clerk would phone a civil servant a few days before a minister or senior official appeared and run through the topics. Sensible to allow them to get briefed some might say and the MP’s are anyway free to ask questions in their own way – or even go off script. But the whole thing used to be a lot more managed than it seemed.

I’m not sure whether the Ministry of Justice top brass know what they are going to be asked this morning at the Justice Committee but the business is last year’s  MoJ's Annual Report “and related matters”. Are we likely to learn much?

After Liz Truss suggested to them last month that prison reform plans might be on hold, the Committee will want confirmation that this is not the case and ideally tease out a timetable for a plan, white paper or legislation. These will be met with a straight bat. On criminal justice, I hope the Committee has a go at three other topics.

First is the state of probation. The foreword to the Annual report says that Transforming Rehabilitation   “is still bedding in, but it is already showing innovation in how offenders are supervised and supported”. The recent Probation Inspectorate report on Through the Gate schemes found “there was little evidence of the anticipated creativity or innovation in the new services being delivered by the Community Rehabilitation Companies.” Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton told the Public Accounts committee in the summer that he was not 100% confident about the programme. When pressed he said he was 60%. What’s the percentage today he might be asked? His department has reviewed the whole programme and the Committee will want to know what they found and what they’re doing about it.

Second there’s electronic monitoring. As the MOJ’s earlier efforts to get satellite tracking off the ground were rated unachievable by the Infrastructure Agency and subsequently scrapped, the Committee will want to know if the plans for new pilots (shared with them in June) are faring better.

Third, there are two matters inherited from the ancient regime. What has happened to the Youth Justice review? And where are we with problem solving courts?  Mr Heaton may be sent out to beat the retreat on one or both- but will probably resort to the straight bat.

 If all that gets too exciting, the Committee could ask something about the governance of the department. Much has changed since the Department’s Single Departmental Plan was published and appointments made to its Board. Are both the plan and the Board still fit for purpose? Or does a new Ministerial team mean they will be up for a refresh.   

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Where are we now on Prison Reform?

I couldn’t follow Liz Truss’s speech to the Tory Conference this morning as I was visiting a prison where I’m doing a piece of work. When I arrived there, I was told the Governors were all in a debrief after a death in custody- yet another wasted life to reinforce the urgency of what the new ministerial team at Justice have to do.

From time to time, Tory party conferences have signalled important changes in prison policy. In 1979 William Whitelaw assured the faithful that short sharp shock detention centres would “be no holiday camps”. In 1993 Michael Howard gave them his 27 point Prison Works package, (funds for which had only been secured hours earlier in a Blackpool hotel room showdown with Chief Secretary Michael Portillo). Last year, Michael Gove won his audience round to redemption by introducing a charismatic ex- offender who now works to rehabilitate others. What of Liz Truss today?

There will be a welcome dollop of cash to stem the wounds inflicted by an ill- judged benchmarking exercise, which has seen prison staff cut by a fifth since 2010 and the loss of many experienced officers on whom stability in prison often depends. Of course prisons can use 400 new boots on the landings but a sustainable future surely needs proper long term resourcing not midyear handouts squeezed from the Treasury.

Recruiting personnel with a military background looks like an effort to recreate the past rather than the modern service we’ve been promised. Indeed the policy offers more than a nod to UKIP’s 2015 manifesto guarantee of a job offer in the police, prisons or border force for anyone who has served in the Armed Forces for a minimum of 12 years.  Unlike Howard, who illustrated his priorities by inviting a victim of a serious crime to address the 1993 conference or Gove with his ex-offender, Ms Truss at least resisted the temptation to surround herself with soldiers.

After mixed signals from the MoJ, prison reform is, it seems, back on. We will have to wait a few weeks for a plan with the promise of legislation in the New Year. These will announce a “vision for prison reform to 2020 and beyond” and “a blueprint for the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation”.  But haven’t we had enough visions and blueprints? It's eight months since David Cameron promised the biggest shake-up in the way our prisons are run since the Victorian times, let alone a generation.

The White Paper will surely need to be a bit more – I think the civil service word is- granular. More plainly, what exactly will be done to solve the crisis in our prisons in the short, medium and long term?

Ms Truss used to favour contracting out all prisons to the private sector on a payment by results basis but today’s damning criticisms of Community Rehabilitation Companies by the Probation Inspectorate makes no case at all for further privatisation. But who knows?  In a Through the Gate scheme that does work, one of the companies, Interserve,  announced today they have recruited Ian Mulholland the former Director of Public Prisons. Mulholland is apparently looking forward to helping grow the business: “The CRCs are our foothold in justice, if we are seen as the best provider we will strengthen our chances of winning more business”. Setting aside the supposed limitations on that particular revolving door, perhaps he knows something we don’t?  

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Making Prisons Safer

  Yesterday’s Ombudsman’s report on homicides in prison is yet another indictment of the state of the prison system. Although thankfully still rare, the increase in what Nigel Newcomen calls  these chilling occurrences  -from an average of 1.6 killings  per year from 2003-12 to 4.3 per year since then- is more evidence, if it were needed, that prisons are in very urgent need of attention. Yet as with the 7 day NHS, the government has looked to be promising grandiose and expansive reforms when there are scarcely resources to do the basics properly.

The government’s response to the crisis in prison safety seems to be that there are no easy solutions.  But it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is one truth that dare not speak its name: that in many prisons, there are simply not enough staff to do the job.

It’s true that staffing may still be generous compared to many countries but following cost cutting exercises, numbers are considerably lower than 2010. To quote the UN “needless to say, management of a prison becomes more difficult with lower ratios of staff to prisoners, as the risk of incident increases.’  

In England and Wales, while this is increasingly being said –by the Howard League, the Labour Party and most recently the Samaritans, the government are reluctant to agree. Last week Justice Minister Sam Gyimah told a Parliamentary debate on Prison safety that “staffing levels are not the main problem”.  Yet on the same day Glen Parva YOI's  Governor was telling an inquest that she has too few resources to protect young prisoners from the risks of bullying, suicide and self -harm.

The Government have promised a plan in the autumn, belatedly recognising that their flagship rehabilitation reforms cannot possibly take hold when staff and prisoners are unsafe. One thing it won’t  include is Lord Harris’s recommendation that specialist Custody and Rehabilitation Officers take responsibility for the overall well-being of young adults in prison- unceremoniously rejected, presumably  on cost grounds. But what should it say?

First it should commit to re-doing the benchmarking that has led to inadequate staff numbers. Just as  the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) were asked after the Mid Staffs Hospital disaster to look at safe staffing for nursing in adult inpatient wards in acute hospitals, an independent body should do so in respect of prisons. With an advisory board comprising personnel at all levels and ex prisoners, it should look seriously at how many staff are required to meet the expectations set by Prison Inspectors and the various recommendations made by them and the Ombudsman. Newcomen's latest report for example called for the careful management of prisoners known to be at risk from others and rigorous cell searching to minimise the availability of weapons. Whatever Gyimiah thinks, both need staff.  Benchmarking Two should be completed by Easter.

Second, some of the capital resources intended to build new prisons should be converted to revenue to pay for the more staff that will be undoubtedly be required. There is growing scepticism that the £1.3 billion secured from the Treasury for new prisons is capable of being spent by 2020. Some of it should be used to repair the current arrangements rather than establishing new ones .

Third, to provide a breathing space for the prison service, a range of measures should be introduced to cut numbers in prison. How about a stronger presumption that sentences of up to 2 years should be suspended? Or relaxing criteria for temporary release and cracking on with plans to pilot tagging and problem solving courts?

Only with a short term plan like this, will the prison service be in a position to approach the reform agenda promised by the last government and half-heartedly at least confirmed by the current one.   I was recently told of a Governing Governor in a local prison having to come in over the weekend to ensure that prisoners received their meals. Good for him for putting his shoulder to the wheel. Somehow,  I don’t think it’s what Governor autonomy is supposed to add up to.  

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Don't Despair on Prison Reform ...Just Yet

On 19th July, five days after her appointment, Justice Secretary Liz Truss said she was clear that the vital work of prison reform will continue "at pace". Seven weeks in, the Guardian’s take on her evidence to the Justice Committee this morning is that the prison reform plans are on hold.

The headline exaggerates a bit because as Ms Truss admitted there is no plan to put on hold. For all his rhetorical flourish, Michael Gove appears to have neglected to create much in the way of concrete proposals for improving prisons let alone a timetable for implementing them. Beyond slogans about giving governors’ more freedom there is no legacy. If we didn’t realise it already we now know that on prison reform (and much else besides), we’ve been conned.

Enter Ms Truss, whose business background may have alerted her antennae to grandiose and ideological schemes floating free from reality. Her instinct, much on display before the Justice Committee is that of the management accountant she was, a profession who, says Wikipedia, “use the provisions of accounting information in order to better inform themselves before they decide matters within their organizations, which aids their management and performance of control functions”. It’s a world away from Gove’s talk of redemption. But it might actually do something.

For what Ms Truss will have realised is that the prison system is in the midst of an operational crisis, while her predecessor did not acknowledge it was a system let alone one  in crisis. Given the urgency of the problems, her approach might be what’s needed; risking another analogy , something closer to a plumber rather than architect. Rightly she said to the committee that making prisons safer is her most pressing priority. If prisoners and staff are afraid or threatened by violence, talk of reform means little.

Where she disappointed was in her unwillingness to countenance a role in reducing the numbers in prison. While ruling out arbitrary reductions, she might well be attracted by rational, planned and evidence based reductions if they can be shown to bring about the outcomes she wants .What we’ll need from her is a bit of creative accountancy so that demand for prison places falls. She will find levers in the system to help her with that if she wants, not least in a revisiting of the probation system which, like much else, she is currently looking at.  So don’t despair. .. just yet. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016

A Few Questions for the New Justice Secretary

On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Liz Truss and her new team face oral questions in the House of Commons and the following day Ms Truss is due to answer questions from the Justice Committee about her priorities in the new post.  Here are four criminal justice topics that MPs should ask about.

First, does Ms Truss still believe, as she did in 2011, that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places? Philip Davies MP will hope so but other MP’s will expect a more constructive tone from the minister leading (what was at least) the Government’s flagship policy of prison reform. When can we expect a White paper/Draft Bill and what will it cover? In the meantime what is Ms Truss planning to do to increase safety and reduce violence in prisons and ensure they are adequately staffed? The committee should also probe on the plans for separate units for jihadi prisoners due to start in 4 category A prisons next year, and her thinking on tariff expired IPP cases.  

Second, Ms Truss has reportedly been less than keen on problem solving courts (but was more positive on the Today Programme on 22 August). MPs should ask if and when pilots will start, where they will take place and what exactly they will be piloting.   They should also try to find out if, like Mr Gove, she sees these are a vehicle for reducing imprisonment, particularly for women. Back in 2011, Ms Truss wanted to reverse the tide of soft justice. But, as a judge might put it “tempora mutantur". 

Third, has Ms Truss made any assessment of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms? Her Permanent Secretary told the Public Accounts Committee in July he was only 60% confident that they were working. What sort of figure would she put on it? And what more can she say about the various electronic tagging pilots that are due to get off the ground in the autumn.  One of the areas Gove’s team were exploring is where electronic monitoring might enable offenders to be given a community sentence where at present they would be sent to custody. Is this still on the cards along with the greater use of electronically monitored release on temporary licence?

Finally on youth justice, what’s happened to Charlie Taylor’s review? Can Ms Truss be drawn on the likelihood of the new generation of secure schools outlined in February’s interim report or changes to courts and sentencing which Taylor’s been looking at since? Is the YJB, as is widely expected, heading for the exit door and what’s the latest on the sale of G4S’s Secure Training Centres?

There's lots more of course but preparing for these topics should give Ms Truss a busy enough weekend.  


Friday, 2 September 2016

From YJB to RJB?

This week's’ Justice Committee report on Restorative Justice (RJ) has a familiar ring to it. It’s positive about the impact which RJ can have both on people who suffer from criminal harm and those who cause it. It’s cautiously optimistic too about RJ’s cost effectiveness, while rightly recognising the need for investment in properly trained facilitators, particularly for work with more serious and difficult cases.

Yet, as the Criminal Justice Alliance tweeted yesterday, the report is something of a fudge.  The Committee’s conclusion - that it is too soon to introduce a legislative right to access restorative justice services but such a goal is laudable and should be actively worked towards- is hardly a call to storm the winter palace of conventional criminal justice and bring about a restorative revolution. It looks set to maintain RJ’s place at the margins rather than propel it to the heart of responses to lawbreaking.

Yes, there has been some growth in the availability of RJ in recent years although the whole area is something of a data free zone. How many cases are dealt with restoratively each year? Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands? We simply don’t know and while there are all sorts of definitional problems making measurement difficult, getting a handle on what’s happening calls for some stronger national leadership.  This should build on the good work of the Restorative Justice Council, who have at least sought to map the organisations offering RJ.  With the Youth Justice Board seemingly on the way out, is it time for a Restorative Justice Board to drive RJ forward nationally for adults and children?

Locally some clearer decisions should be made about who is responsible for commissioning and providing RJ. Is it primarily a voluntary sector activity or should police, probation and prisons be expected to offer it ?  A study of European jurisdictions found that RJ options are used by prosecutors and by courts in a wide variety of cases. In Germany prosecutors can dismiss charges if the accused makes a serious attempt to reach a mediated agreement with the aggrieved person by trying to make reparation for his offence, in full or in part. Courts can mitigate or even dispense with punishment if the perpetrator has in an effort to achieve mediation with the aggrieved party, completely or substantially made restitution for his act or earnestly strived to make restitution. About half of victim offender mediation cases in Germany relate to a violent offence.

Back in 2012, the Ministry of Justice though committed to making more use of RJ did not want to do so in a way that was over prescriptive or places unnecessary restrictions or burdens upon the system. While a series of Action Plans and funding for PCC's  have helped to grow RJ since then, the goals of making restorative justice available to victims at every stage of the criminal justice system and in every location will never be achieved without a stronger approach.

There may be opportunities for a step change in RJ in the coming months- in problem solving courts, reform prisons or a new youth justice system (if the Taylor report sees the light of day). But they won’t be taken if its business as usual.    

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Reflections on Prison Overcrowding

How best to eliminate the scourge of overcrowding in the world’s prisons? Two countries much in the news are promising different solutions with Turkey planning to release 38,000 "ordinary" criminals (if only to make room for alleged coup plotters) and the Philippines substantially increasing its capacity to reduce the squalor so shockingly revealed at Quezon City jail.

Neither approach generally finds favour with prison reformers; amnesties are seen to erode the rule of law and encourage corruption;  prison construction uses limited resources better spent in other ways and risks the induced demand effect:“if you build it, they will fill it”.

More favoured strategies include systematic efforts to reduce the use of pretrial detention and the development of alternatives to prison sentences.  There is much to be said for both of these. Many of the most congested prisons are those holding large numbers of suspects awaiting trial. The measures outlined in PRI’s recent Ten Point Plan – including diversion of minor cases, time limits for court cases, pretrial release options and effective file management- could all help to ease demand for prison places: and the development of sentencing options such as probation or community service which place burdens on offenders without depriving them of their freedom can help ensure that petty offenders at least are kept out of jail. 

While both these approaches are necessary – and in certain circumstances amnesties and prison building have a role to play too- they are not sufficient. This is particularly true in Africa where prison reform has struggled to have an impact. On that continent, overcrowding is little short of a humanitarian disaster.  Some countries which have reduced the use of pre-trial detention – Malawi is an example- still have grossly overcrowded prisons albeit on the sentenced rather than remand side. Others which have implemented community service orders have seen limited impact on prison populations.

On a recent visit to Uganda, I saw a thousand plus prisoners in Jinja’s pre- trial prison, built for 300. We were told that 106 were charged with petty offences but the vast majority had allegedly committed serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery. Improved pre-trial justice would bring them to trial quickly but those convicted would face long sentences, generally served in full. Alternative sanctions as currently constituted might divert the petty offenders from the penal system but even if the law allowed it, would not be accepted by courts or the public as an adequate response to more serious criminality.  

A much more robust form of alternative sentencing has been developed in neighbouring Rwanda. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, conventional legal responses were simply impractical given the scale and gravity of the problems to resolve. Alongside the creation of Gacaca community courts, an innovative form of Travail d’Interet General (TIG)  was introduced - an intensive community service order undertaken as part of a prison sentence. Rather than stay at home and do unpaid work for a few hours a day which is the model of community service in place in the rest of East Africa,  the genocidaires - so-called tigistes- were based in camps doing a full working day six days a week. This enabled substantial infrastructure projects to be completed- including construction of roads, homes for vulnerable people (including genocide survivors) and school dormitories. The Rwandan government have claimed that up to 2013 more than $50 million worth of work had been done Prisoners have been released much earlier than they would have been and have learned skills to help them resettle. The prison population has been stable for the last six years.

The Rwanda model has not been without critics, in respect of living conditions, health and safety concerns and ability of tigistes to stay in contact with families- in short whether it is in fact a second prison or form of forced labour. The tigistes seem to prefer it to spending longer in prison; and the more tangible community benefits make it more appealing to courts and public alike

Rwanda’s 2012 Penal Code extended TIG to all offenders who have committed an offence which is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 5 years.  The limit  is two years in Uganda and lower is several countries.

Policies developed after Rwanda’s exceptional horrors may not seem relevant to other contexts. But by showing that people guilty of some of the worst crimes can be punished in part at least through reparation in the community , the TIG model offers the prospect that increased development need not always entail greatly increased imprisonment. As long as the rights of participants are respected, it could be tested as a way of  replacing or shortening prison sentences and contributing to major public works elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places: our new Justice Secretary's view of the world

Back in February, David Cameron set out why he believed prison reform should be a great progressive cause in British politics. It was certainly a top priority for his Justice Secretary Michael Gove, but in truth despite warm words and myriad reviews, virtually no progress was made before the careers of both men came to an end this week. What are the prospects of the reform agenda being pursued by the new management?

It’s unlikely that six years in the Home Office will have sharpened Mrs May’s appetite for a policy based on redemption and rehabilitation. But what of Elizabeth Truss, the woman May today appointed to succeed Mr Gove?

While she has been described as socially liberal, five years ago Truss co-authored a book called "After the Coalition: A Conservative Agenda for Britain". This argued  the need to "reverse the tide of soft justice", complaining that some judges have declined to jail criminals on human right grounds and that punishment in the justice system is too often a dirty word. Ms Truss and her colleagues were also “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. They wanted persistent offenders sentenced for prolonged periods, praying in aid Howard League research on the ineffectiveness of short prison terms. They also proposed privatising all prisons.

So far, so discouraging. But differing policy views notwithstanding, one of the other authors of the book, Dominic Raab found himself able to work with Mr Gove over the last year, although not directly on prisons. Raab has recently been looking at sentencing reform, apparently more constructively than his 2011 views might suggest.

Let’s hope Ms Truss has had a similar change of heart and will not throw the Gove reforms into reverse before they have got out of first gear . There was perhaps likely to be a lot less to the reality of those reforms than was being promised. But at least the terms of the debate framed by the last government were positive ones. Conservative governments  have often swung between progressive and hard line responses to crime and offenders: Brittan v Hurd, Clarke v Howard, Grayling v Gove.  Where will Ms Truss fit?   

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Meanwhile in Other News.... What we Learned about Prison and Probation Reform this week

With energies consumed on political manoeuvrings, it must be hard for Cabinet ministers to focus on their day job. But while the Captain’s hands may be lightly attached to the departmental tiller, the ship of state sails on and so it was this week that we learned some interesting things from the crew who were hauled up before two Parliamentary committees.

On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee quizzed senior Ministry of Justice officials about the probation reforms. In a telling exchange, the Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton was asked how he thought the privately run Community Rehabilitation Companies were performing. His impression was that “this has not quite settled down and the story is probably mixed. It is not a part of the service that I am 100% confident about”. Why’s that, he was asked by Caroline Flint MP. “Just because I detect inconsistency, that’s all. I am not 100% confident about any of this; that is why it is such a difficult programme”. 60% confident? pressed Ms Flint. “Yes, all right, if you like”, Mr Heaton is recorded as admitting in the transcript.

To their credit, the Committee were holding their meeting at a prison; Hatfield in Ms Flint’s Don Valley constituency. Perhaps because they were away from Westminster, the MP’s went pretty easy on the officials, prepared to accept the NAO’s verdict that the programme was a success because the whole system did not "fall over". Mr Heaton looks like he was getting in his excuses for when it does.

The next day, the Justice Committee heard from three criminal justice inspectors and the Prison Ombudsman. With six so-called Reform prisons underway from 1st July, the Committee were understandably interested in how their progress would be measured. So it turned out were the Inspectors, who struggled to explain what governor autonomy  would mean, what the baseline is for measuring performance and what minimum standards were in place. Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen seemed concerned that under the current arrangements, prisons had accepted almost all of the recommendations in his reports about complaints and fatal incidents but often failed to implement resulting action plans.  Would the new Reform Prison be any more likely to do so he wondered?

More generally, the inspectorates do not seem to have been overly involved in developing what was an “evolving” policy although Prison Inspector Peter Clarke mentioned meetings with the Bill team. The previous day Mr Heaton had said he expected to be able to publish a White Paper “before the end of the year” so, wisely perhaps unlike the headlong rush into “Transforming Rehabilitation”, prison reform is progressing at a steadier pace. Who know whether it will match the speed of electronic monitoring: satellite tracking pilots were announced this week almost 12 years after they were first promised?  

Whether prison reform progresses at all will depend on the make-up of the new government. Peter Hennessey once described the Home Office as the graveyard of liberal thinking since the days of Lord Sidmouth. If its current incumbent, with Mr Grayling at her side, moves into no 10 , it will be no surprise if there is what is sometimes called a reverse ferret.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Contemporary Dilemmas in Criminal Justice

Did you know that in the early 19th century, an ancestor of former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP was transported to Botany Bay (for a theft he probably didn’t commit), where through hard work and enterprise he started to accumulate the family fortune? Or that David Davis MP has brought a case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg while simultaneously campaigning for the UK to leave the court’s jurisdiction?  Or that one of the suspects acquitted of involvement in planning the 7/7 terror attacks in London now teaches citizenship to new arrivals in the UK?

I do, thanks to an excellent conference organised by the Oxford Centre for Criminology yesterday to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Anecdotes apart, three important themes emerged from the day’s deliberations on contemporary dilemmas in criminal justice.

First, justice is in trouble. At the international level there are growing questions over the effectiveness of mechanisms for holding the powerful to account for grave crimes after the dismissal of Kenyan cases at the ICC. Last year also saw an increasing resort to the death penalty- Clive Stafford Smith told us that Pakistan currently has 8,262 prisoners on what is the world’s largest death row.

Domestically, criminal justice is, in the words of one participant, running on fumes and goodwill. Grieve revealed that without continuing falls in crime during his time in office, the system would have collapsed. One consequence of resource pressures on prosecutors, courts and lawyers is a heightened risk of miscarriages of justice.

Second, despite that fall in crime, law enforcement and justice agencies are facing new sets of challenges which existing ways of working look increasingly ill- suited to meet. Whether investigating fraud and cybercrime or responding to growing number of allegations of sexual offences - likely to multiply during the Goddard review- new methods are needed which are better attuned to the private and complex nature of much of this activity. More police on the beat- the favoured political refrain - is not going to crack it.  The overlap between illegal migration and criminal justice also presents new dilemmas for policy and practice.

As for terrorism, serious concerns were raised about the criminal and civil law response to suspects which were described as lacking coherence, rationality and legitimacy. While ex -Met chief Lord Ian Blair  did warn that further atrocities –thus far thankfully but sometimes narrowly avoided –could herald a yet  more draconian regime,  the Conference heard powerful arguments for refocussing  the law  relating to the preparation of acts of terrorism, the use of secret evidence and the role and accountability of the security services.

The third theme to emerge was that paradoxically perhaps, there may be a window for constructive and potentially radical criminal justice reform. Grieve said that Michael Gove’s retreat on legal aid reform means that reducing prison numbers is the only option for balancing the justice budget. That is clearly not the only reason for seeking to cut the prison population. Felicity Gerry QC denounced the whole system as “rubbish” at dealing with vulnerable defendants, arguing for fundamental change in how criminality by women is defined and dealt with. The conference heard proposals to strip magistrates of their powers to imprison, require courts to consider family impact statements prior to sentencing and strengthen sentencing guidelines for women.

Could these and other reforms happen, not just in respect of women, but others in conflict with the law? The climate of political, public and media opinion may be more favourable than for some time and the loosening of central government control over criminal justice agencies may encourage innovation in England and Wales at least. 

Change whether at home or abroad will require both technical knowledge about what to do and the political will to do it. The first of these should receive a boost from the establishment of Oxford’s Global Criminal Justice hub which will develop a research agenda to inform future policy development. As for political will, this can be nurtured by the kind of advocacy, public debate and commitment to progressive reform that was evident throughout the day.   As Stafford- Smith exhorted us, “never apologise for helping countries to do the right thing”- not least our own.


Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Problem with Problem Solving Justice

Last night former Chief Judge of New York Jonathan Lippman extolled the virtues of problem solving justice to a distinguished audience at the Royal Courts of Justice. In a lecture hosted by the Centre for Justice Innovation, Lippman explained how he and other judicial leaders had, over the last 20 years, encouraged courts not simply to process cases through the system but to find ways of addressing the underlying problems of addiction and unemployment. Business as usual had been  sending the revolving door of jail spinning out of control, but Lippman  described how the Midtown and Redhook Community Courts and a number of mental health and drug courts in the State  have combined help and punishment in order to offer defendants a chance to change the trajectory of their lives. The lecture was well received, introduced by the Lord Chief Justice and concluded by Justice Minister Caroline Dinenage.

Strangely, there was not a single mention of the fact that we’ve been here before. Back in the 2000’s David Blunkett, Lord Woolf and many others (myself included)  visited Redhook and returned enthused. The North Liverpool Community Justice Centre, modelled on Redhook was established in 2004 at a cost of £4 million. 13 Community justice courts were set up from Middlesborough to Merthyr Tydfil as were specialist Domestic Violence and Mental Health Courts. Of this experience there was, last night, not a word.

That is maybe because the initiatives did not work as well as was hoped. Unlike evaluations of American schemes, research found no evidence that the North Liverpool court had a positive impact on re-offending for any particular type of offender. Moreover, offenders given court orders at the court were more likely to breach the conditions of their order than the comparator group for England and Wales. North Liverpool Community Justice Centre closed in 2013. The problem solving approach elsewhere has struggled to be sustainable.

The minister said last night that a working group set up to examine models of problem-solving courts and advise on new pilots had completed its work . Hopefully the group will have looked closely at the UK experience and how the context differs from the US.  Relative lack of welfare provision and low thresholds for prosecution may mean some at least of the problems in American courts are more straightforward to fix than over here. More developed options for pre-court diversion may mean that the police or CPS are better agents of change in England and Wales than the courts. Culturally, judges and magistrates here may be more reluctant to get involved in the implementation of sentences (as opposed to their imposition) and unwilling to express the kind of emotion Judge Lippman described on seeing a changed offender at a "graduation" hearing. Maybe performance measures simply don't allow courts the opportunity to identify defendants' problems and arrange the required response from health and welfare services already under stress.

Yet the climate may be more propitious for problem courts this time round although money is much tighter than it was . The Centre for Justice Innovation is able to provide the kind of technical assistance which was lacking with the initiatives in the last decade. The Judiciary is leading a major modernisation programme in courts which provides, at least, a strong following wind.  

A 2009 Policy Exchange Report on Problem-Solving Justice in England and Wales was entitled Lasting Change or Passing Fad. If it’s to be the former, and I hope it is, the question is not why problem solving justice but how. It’s a question of which Ms Dinenage’s father Fred would have been proud.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Reform Prisons - An Elephant Giving Birth to a Mouse?

Fifteen years ago, Michael Gove jointly edited A Blue Tomorrow- a collection of essays subtitled New Visions for Modern Conservatives.  In the foreword, the editors attacked Tony Blair’s Labour government (freshly re- elected in a second landslide) for seeing “the answer to every problem in a new rule, restriction, quango, agency task force or diktat…, micro-managing problems in a manner which denies autonomy and contributes to greater chaos”.  Gove et al preferred much greater humility about the capacity of the state to provide solutions arguing for pluralism in the provision of public services and the devolution of power to the lowest accountable level. Innovation, they asserted "springs from respecting the individual, the quirky and the local".  

Today this particular vision has the penal system in its sights with a Prisons Bill, the centrepiece of the Queen’s speech and the announcement of six Reform Prisons as the icebreakers of a self- styled revolution.

Gove is not the only brain behind the operation. Nick Herbert’s 2008 “Green Paper” Prisons with a Purpose, recommended that public-sector prisons become "independent, fee-earning prison and rehabilitation trusts”, a direction that was developed in the Centre for Social Justice Report Locked up Potential in 2009. But Gove’s belief that institutions of all kinds flourish when liberated from the dead hand of central bureaucracy has given huge momentum to the idea of reforming prisons, which he has described as the most centralised and dirigiste area of public service he has seen.

For those who may be sceptical about the application of simple ideologies on complex institutional arrangements, there are three questions to ask about how exactly the Reform Prisons will differ from the rest .

First, will they be protected from population pressures in any way? At the end of April, all of the Reform Prisons were overcrowded bar Kirklevington Grange open prison. Coldingley, was only slightly overcrowded , its population at  104% of “Certified Normal accommodation”- the capacity which represents  the decent standard of accommodation that the Prison Service aspires to provide all prisoners. The population at Holme House was 116%, High Down 119%, Ranby 125% and Wandsworth 169%.

Although ministers dispute the extent of overcrowding and its impact on prisoners, Inspectors in their most recent reports on the reform prisons have few such doubts. HMIP said overcrowding at Wandsworth, combined with severe staff shortages, meant that almost every service was insufficient to meet the needs of the population. They found overcrowded cells at High Down which were were cramped, lacked furniture and contained inadequately screened toilets. At Ranby, staff in some house blocks appeared very busy with little time to talk to prisoners; and Holme House took prisoners on overcrowding drafts from other prisons. The first question therefore is whether it will be business as usual in terms of the numbers prisoners in the Reform Prisons or will they be insulated from some of the population pressures- something which would of course place greater strain on other parts of the system.

Second while it seems clear that governors will be given greater control over how their budget is spent, will it be increased? There are troubling signs that staffing levels are simply too low in some prisons. At Wandsworth, Inspectors said that  reductions in staff numbers had greatly reduced the capacity of officers to engage constructively with prisoners. At Coldingley, they found  broken furniture and equipment , inadequately screened toilets and windows that needed to be replaced. At Ranby prisoners had difficulty obtaining cleaning materials, clean clothes and clean bedding. The second question is how much additional budget will be given to the Reform Prisons.
There may be an argument for reallocating some of the hq resources to them if they are making less call upon central services. But more favourable resourcing will need to be taken into account in assessing changes in performance.   

Third, we know that the government plan to give unprecedented freedoms to Reform Prison governors, including financial and legal freedoms, whether to opt-out of national contracts; and operational freedoms over education, the prison regime, family visits, and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation services. There's a strong case for concentrating more commissioning responsibility in the hands of governor and restoring to them greater control of what goes on in their establishmentBut what will this mean in practice?

NOMS CEO Michael Spurr pondered a few months back whether Governor autonomy might include the ability to introduce conjugal visits. We don't yet know if Reform Prisons be able to pay staff more, disapply prison service instructions or make their own arrangements for resettling prisoners outside the existing contracts with Community Rehabilitation Companies. I suspect the answer to each of these questions may be no. Neither is the governors's autonomy likely to  extend to releasing prisoners early- something Gove favours and has been impressed by at the Military Corrective Centre.

The third and most fundamental question is therefore: if these kind of freedoms are in fact off limits, are Reform Prisons not an elephant that gives birth to a mouse?