Many of the great and the good of the prison reform world gathered yesterday morning at Church House to hear Justice Secretary David Gauke ’s second major speech on prison reform in six months. His words were well enough received by an audience mostly relieved that he hadn’t been shifted to another post.
Good that he’s found £30 million to repair prisons and equip more cells with phones. But its relatively small beer and maybe not new money. Of the array of initiatives he announced, quite what “digital categorisation” and “drug diagnostics” will deliver remains to be seen. And as for “Lifetime Offender Management”- well it doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the rehabilitative ideal. Increasing release on temporary licence, improving incentives and creating more in the way of enhanced living conditions for prisoners who engage in rehabilitation sound promising if not entirely new. Forgive the scepticism, but as with Reform and Resettlement Prisons before them, there’s always the worry that these will be the stuff of speeches and press releases rather than sustainable real-world practice.
In- Cell telephones apart- the more progressive the policy ideas, the more aspirational and less concrete they become. Gauke, for example thinks too many people go to prison for prolific petty crime and short custodial sentences should only be used where absolutely appropriate. So what will he do? Introduce legislation restricting their imposition? Instruct the Sentencing Council to revise their guidelines? So far neither has been mentioned. It won’t happen of its own accord, particularly with probation in such a state.
The reason for the timing of Gauke’s speech became clear today, with the Chief Inspector’s excoriating annual report on prisons. Peter Clarke has seen conditions which he says have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century. And prisons are still becoming less safe not more. For Clarke, “improvement has yet to materialise”. Both staff and prisoners alike seem to have become inured to conditions that should not be accepted.
Cleverly getting his retaliation in first, Gauke was trying to give a rather more positive impression of the Government's management of penal affairs- as well as blunting the impact of Clarke's report .
Just in case he looked too liberal, Gauke's Church House policies were framed as “a fresh crackdown on crime in prison”. If only. The real crime in prison of course is that they have been allowed to deteriorate so far.