There’s been reassurance from the Prisons Minister at the House of Commons Justice Committee. In struggling prisons, the most significant facilities management issues are checked up on in Whitehall every week. Although “heavily operational, it’s “all important to delivering a decent regime, and we are getting to that level of detail to make sure this works”.
This isn’t the back to basics approach announced on Wednesday by new minister Rory Stewart but the evidence given by his predecessor Sam Gyimah back in November 2016. Given that the squalid living conditions endured by many prisoners at HMP Liverpool – the subject of the latest hearing- somehow escaped Mr Gyimah’s detailed attentions, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether Mr Stewart will do any better. Reformers are born optimists so let’s hope so. Good for him for taking responsibility for sorting out the prison crisis and offering to be judged on the results.
More and more Inspection reports have revealed the scale of the challenge in creating the “modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system” promised by David Cameron. The reality is that it will take a year to repair or replace the cell windows at Liverpool- and that’s if the Prison’s Action Plan is actually followed, unlike the one produced after a 2015 inspection.
Stewart is right to say that the recommendations made by inspectors should drive reform agendas in establishments. He could have added that Independent Monitoring Boards' and Ombudsman's findings deserve greater attention as well- the former in particular as they produce much more frequent reports. And he’s thinking about whether the Inspectorate itself should be bolstered so it can follow up on itself on the problems it identifies. But is he right about how to achieve change in prisons?
The local failures at Liverpool appear to cast doubt on the idea of giving Governors more and more autonomy but Stewart is fully signed up to the idea. At least twice he used military analogies in describing the prison service. Governors, like Colonels should be left to run their own show under the watchful gaze of Brigadiers who intervene when things go wrong. It’s not an altogether comfortable comparison. Prison staff are not soldiers fighting an enemy. There are plenty of other institutions- schools, colleges, hospitals, which can provide better models for much of what the prison service should be doing. There is always a risk that security, control and justice get out of kilter in a prison. The Committee heard that bosses were so concerned about security following an escape at Liverpool, they ignored mounting piles of rubbish, vermin infestations and degrading cell conditions.
Stewart was dismissive too of grand concerns about sentencing and other abstract policy questions which he thinks have distracted attention from the day to day problems in prisons. Here he is wrong. As the Council of Europe 's anti torture watchdog has reported following their 2016 visit to the UK, the implementation of the prison reform programme will be unattainable without concrete steps to significantly reduce the current prison population. The Government’s response, published this week? They do not propose to set arbitrary targets for reducing the prison population, but to achieve it via a combination of early intervention upstream and on reducing reoffending after release for those who are sentenced to immediate custody.
Disappointing though that may be, even these modest strategies require a genuine policy commitment from housing, healthcare, education, business and local government. Stewart‘s job is to negotiate that as well as fixing broken windows. Unless he and colleagues find some way to cut prison numbers his task will not be that of Hercules but of Sisyphus.