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. 

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