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?


  1. If there are improvements at Wandsworth, then the reforms will at least be the size of a medium-sized dog...

    1. I am trying to stop using animal analogies....