In his inaugural speech as Professor of Criminal Justice at Royal Holloway College this week, Nick Hardwick set out his views on what makes for a good prison. Recently released from his duty to catalogue the deteriorating state of the nation’s jails, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons turned his mind to what’s needed to turn into reality the government’s ambitious agenda to “lead the world with new rehabilitation techniques and smarter ways of managing prisoners”.
On one requirement he was clear; if the prison system cannot take on more personnel – and he seemed pretty sure the spending settlement will not permit that- then there will have to be a reduction in the numbers of prisoners. Many of the failings that Hardwick has documented since 2011 – in keeping prisoners safe, in providing purposeful activity and preparing them for release - boil down to inadequate staffing. Hardwick will, like many, be disappointed to read in a Guardian interview that the Justice Secretary has no intention of seeking to reduce the size of the prison population. Michael Gove appears to believe that you can improve the ability of a pint pot to accommodate a quart by letting the pot decide how to do it.
Hardwick was careful to say that he personally would not be significantly contributing to reducing prison numbers in his new role as chair of the Parole Board where he will decide on the liberty of the most dangerous prisoners. He pointed to the possibilities for less serious offenders; of increased use of tagging, sentences served in instalments and radical alternatives for women and children organised in the health and social care sectors. While Gove has echoed the call for more radical thinking with these latter groups, they amount to about 5% of the 85,753 people in prison last Friday. By closing the door on prison reduction for adult men, Gove has made the bold promises to create a modern, more effective prison system look a good deal emptier.
By coincidence, former NOMS Chief and now Ministry of Justice Board member Sir Martin Narey was also this week quoted as seeing a need to reduce prison numbers. He told the Prison Service Journal he doesn't think “the Prison Service can flourish … if we don’t do something about the inevitable conflict between shrinking budgets and a rising population". Indeed he quit NOMS in the mid 2000's because new Home Secretary Charles Clarke was not interested in capping the prison population. “If we had been able to control numbers the Prison Service would be in a much better place now”. Let’s hope Narey and, and Hardwick, will have better luck persuading Gove of this.