Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Fired Up about Prison Reform

It’s less than 18 months since David Cameron cast prison reform as “a great progressive cause in British politics”. His vision was for “the leadership team of a prison to be highly-motivated, to be entrepreneurial and to be fired up about their work”. The President of the Prison Governors Association is certainly fired up alright but less with enthusiasm than exasperation. I can’t recall such a broadside being delivered by a public servant to her bosses- nor one that is so (almost) wholly justified- as that which was delivered by Andrea Albutt today.

Cameron’s hubristic vision of a modern, more effective, truly 21st century prison system looks as far away as ever. The levels of violence, drug-taking and self-harm which he thought should shame us all in February 2016 have continued to soar.

So what’s gone wrong? Three things. First was the failure- wilful or otherwise - to see the severity of the impact which budget reductions would make on the stability of prisons.  There was never really a “Golden Years pre austerity” as Andrea Albutt has put it. But all too often, “too great a degree of tolerance of poor standards and of risk” as Robert Francis QC said of Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust. Such a tolerance was one of the reasons why numerous warning signs did not alert the health system to developing problems in Mid Staffs. The same is true of many prisons which were never truly stable enough to withstand the level of cutbacks, particularly when Ken Clarke’s efforts to reduce the population were shelved.   

Second the government applied a formula approach to reform which ignored some of the distinctive challenges of prisons. Cameron promised to "bring the academies model that has revolutionised our schools to the prisons system". It was a mistake. An approach is needed that recognises that individual prisons cannot float free in the same way as schools and their customers have no choice over which establishment they attend. Given the risk averseness of government, whatever ministers may say, innovation is always likely to be closely controlled from the centre. The so called empowerment agenda has, says Andrea Albutt, yet to gain any traction, with governors now accounting both to their headquarters and the Ministry- the result of a ‘perverse’ severance of policy from operations which has so far added cost but little benefit.

Third there has been an optimism bias about the reform agenda. I’m not sure whether Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still in vogue, but it should have been obvious that without safety and security, loftier ambitions about rehabilitation have no chance of success, however flowery the rhetoric. Too many stakeholders have been taken for a ride. The National Audit Office for example, will presumably look back with some embarrassment on their 2013 assessment that "the strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past". Their view that the Ministry of Justice make good use of forecasts of prisoner numbers and have good contingency plans is flatly contradicted by the PGA’s view that the recent rise in the population, unforeseen by the statisticians in MOJ, has left virtually no headroom in prison spaces.

So what to do? First to stabilise the population, create that headroom and make a dent on overcrowding, some kind of early release scheme should be introduced while longer term plans to reduce the population are put in place. There’s no shortage of ways of doing that -only a shortage of political courage to do so. The new Secretary of State for Justice needs to show that. 


Second, some structural changes. Shifting responsibility for juveniles out of the MOJ and prisons into the education ministry; a Youth Justice Board for young adults, a new body to deliver alternative accommodation for elderly prisoners. Devolving financial responsibilities for prisons to local areas.  They won’t produce quick fixes but could help take the pressure off an overburdened prison system in the medium to long term. 

Finally, capable prison governors working in Whitehall should be returned to the front line and experienced staff who have left the service in the last five years lured back into it whatever it takes. Plans to recruit more and better qualified staff are promising but will take time the service has not got.  Some of the capital resources intended to build new prisons should be converted to revenue to pay for staff .There is growing scepticism that the £1.3 billion secured from the Treasury for new prisons can be spent by 2020. Some of it should be used to repair the current arrangements rather than establishing new ones.

In less than three months, the largest annual gathering of international prison professionals takes place in London for a week of discussions about “Innovation in Rehabilitation: Building Better Futures”. Its focus is on improving outcomes for prisoners. But that won’t happen unless they are improved for prisons first.