Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Prime Minister's Speech on Prison Reform

On Monday, the Prime Minister gave a speech on prison reform. It was, as he noted, the first time in over twenty years that a Prime Minister has given a speech solely about prisons. And although responses have been mixed, and many fair criticisms made, I for one tentatively welcome the proposed reforms.

The first positive aspect of the speech was the tone. Instead of the hectoring about ‘tough on crime’ that you might expect, the Prime Minister largely focused on rehabilitation and the ‘redemption’ of criminals. Of course there was a little on being ‘tough on crime’, no doubt to appeal to the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ types; but broadly the speech was far less about this and far more about improving prisons and improving prisoners’ prospects.

The government proposals fall into four wide areas. The first is to give greater autonomy to individual prisons and particularly to prison governors. The Prime Minister pointed out that prisons are largely run centrally, and must operate in accordance with the ‘924 prison service instructions and prison service orders... [which are] currently in operation’. These collectively amount to ‘46,000 pages of rules, regulation and guidance’. The strategy to give prisons greater autonomy will therefore be to use the schools ‘academy model’ in prisons. Prison governors will be given much more power to make their own decisions, including total discretion regarding their budgets; the ability to opt out of national contracts; and the tailoring of regimes to fit the particular requirements of their prison. Six of these ‘reform prisons’ will be created this year, and the ultimate goal will be for this to be rolled out to the entire prison estate.

Further proposals in this area include turning existing Young Offenders’ Institutions into secure schools, with much more focus on education and less on security; and improving recruitment into the prison service.

The problem with these proposals – a point which has already been made by many notable commentators – is that at the moment prisons are enormously overcrowded. Prison occupancy is way over ‘normal occupancy’ levels and prison population is in general higher than it has ever been. Two offenders are sharing cells meant for one; three offenders are sharing cells meant for two; and the staff to prisoner ratios are so poor that prisoners are regularly left in their cells when they should be doing purposeful activities, because there are not enough staff to allow the prisoners safely out of their cells. If prison population is not reduced – and it should be noted that the Prime Minister gave very little indication that this will be a focal point of the policies: indeed, he deliberately rejected sentencing reform – then governors can be given all the freedom in the world, but it will not make a difference. If prisoners are living two or three to a cramped cell, and there are not enough staff to take them out of cells for visits to the library, or to educational courses, or – as does in fact happen – even to the shower, then no amount of prison autonomy is going to make much of a difference.

The second part of the proposals focuses on transparency and accountability. This boils down to a plan to create new ‘Prison League Tables’. This will entail the development of ‘meaningful metrics about prison performance’, such as reoffending rates, employment outcomes for prisoners, whether or not the offender went into permanent accommodation on release, and the progress made on basic literacy and key skills while in custody.

The problem with this proposal is that it does not reflect the way in which the prison system actually works. While it is the case that some prisoners spend their entire sentence in one prison, very many are moved around between different prisons during their sentence. And the prisons from which prisoners are released are very often different from the ones in which they spent the majority of their sentence. So who gets the credit or the blame? Let me give an example to illustrate.

My client Mr G has a life sentence. He spent the early years of his sentence in Young Offenders’ Institutions, which were violent and unpleasant and in which his behaviour was very poor. He was then moved to HMP Gartree. This is a ‘training’ prison, working with prisoners who have lengthy sentences. During his time there Mr G made tremendous strides. He took a huge number of educational courses; improved his educational and employment prospects; and matured emotionally. Due to his impressive progress, he was then transferred to an open prison: HMP Spring Hill. HMP Spring Hill is dramatically understaffed and inefficient and so his time there seems to have been more about waiting for his next Parole review than making further progress. His next Parole review is coming up quite soon and he hopes to be released. If he is released, the likelihood is that he will move into permanent accommodation; gain a job quickly; and he will not reoffend. So if the Prison League Table is in place, which prison will get the credit for his success? Will it be HMP Spring Hill? That will be the final prison he will be in before being released. But it is really HMP Gartree which supported, educated and rehabilitated Mr G. Will they get credit for that?

In fact, there are many prisons like HMP Gartree from which very few prisoners are released directly, but which do sterling rehabilitative work. Most prisoners will go from HMP Gartree (and prisons like it) to an open prison, before their eventual release. How will the League Tables account for that?

There are other logistical problems also. Some prisons take almost exclusively short-term prisoners, whose reoffending rate – as noted by the Prime Minister – is higher. Will they be penalised for this? What about High Security Prisons? What about prisons which focus on particular groups, such as prisons with units for prisoners with severe personality disorders, or prisons which exclusively contain sex offenders? To put it simply – this is not comparing like with like.

The third part of the plan is intervention and treatment, and this section discusses some crucial issues: prisoner illiteracy, lack of qualifications, mental health difficulties, addiction, and so on. The Prime Minister quite rightly recognises that prisoners are largely drawn from those who had few or no life chances right from the beginning – and while of course, many people go through similar difficulties as a child and do not break the law, nonetheless the difficulties experienced by prisoners while young are undoubtedly related to their ultimate incarceration.

The Prime Minister therefore suggests various strategies to assist in these areas, including proper teaching of basic literacy and numeracy; focusing on the treatment of mental health difficulties and drug addiction (including, crucially, diverting some mentally ill offenders from going to prison at all). He also talks about building new prisons and tearing down some of the worst quality Victorian prisons in which we still house prisoners, and this is extremely welcome.

Another intriguing proposal is the creation of a ‘Teach First’-style scheme to get graduates teaching in prisons. This blog is already too long to analyse this suggestion properly, so I will just note: there are many legitimate and serious criticisms of Teach First; teaching in prisons is quite different from teaching in schools, no matter how ‘difficult’ the school is; and I will be extremely interested to see the progress of this scheme.

The final area considered looks at several disparate ideas, including ‘swift and certain’ sentences, problem-solving courts, and the use of technology, including satellite tagging of offenders such as mothers and those with full-time jobs. It also considers the effect of having previous convictions on employment – as is well known, the existence of previous convictions is a huge barrier on employment for ex-offenders. The Prime Minister is proposing to ‘ban the box’ – that is, prevent employers from asking about previous convictions upfront, and require them to wait until a later stage such as interview stage or just before an offer of a job is made. I think this is a great idea that will force employers to be more open-minded about prospective employees and allow ex-offenders to get their foot in the door before their convictions are known about.


Overall, the Prime Minister has put forward a series of interesting and largely progressive policies. Many criticisms have been made, often with a strong foundation; and it is clear that the policies proposed will not by themselves be sufficient to fix all the woes of the prison system, especially if the prison population is not reduced. But I look forward to observing and commenting on the continuing reform of the prison system, in the hope of significant improvement.

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