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Prisons - Richer Soup or More Porridge?

18 May 2016 | Updated 01 January 1970

In placing the need for prison reform the Cameron government has emphasised that it will deliver this by providing prison governors with more freedom in their decision making.

As usual the Queen’s Speech was low on detail but enough has already been leaked to the media on what steps will be taken by Michael Gove’s Ministry of Justice to implement the bold promises to improve what everyone has conceded is a crisis within the prison system.

We now know that the Prisons and Courts Reform Bill will pilot six jails where their governors will have control over budgets, allocate as they see fit rehabilitation and educational services and alter the prison regime, including family visits. On top of that, the chosen prisons will have freedom over contracts and  generate and retain income; an area that is bound to be the focus of some concern but which the government insists will be scrutinised by ‘a new regime of transparency’.

The prisons in the pilot scheme are:

  • Wandsworth, south London.
  • Holme House, Stockton-on-Tees.
  • Ranby, Nottinghamshire.
  • Coldingley, Woking.
  • Kirklevington Grange, Cleveland.
  • High Down, Sutton.           

It will be a moot point if the measures proposed by Cameron and Gove will, in themselves, deliver the radical shift in the prison system they are claiming and critics have already lined up to question that the reforms will reduce reoffending with prisoners being viewed as ‘potential assets to be harnessed’.


Scepticism from experts

Those who have been in the position of prison governor are already pointing that words will not be enough to deliver the kind of service the government is talking about.

"The real issue is the size of the prison population, the length of time we keep people in prison for,” Eoin McLennan-Murray, former governor of Coldingley Prison in Surrey, told the BBC. “And by the fact prison governors had no control over how many prisoners they had and for how long – both of these things are beyond a governor's control.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, believed that while it was good that prison reform appeared to be at the top of the government’s agenda, the most pressing priority was to restore prison safety and stem the 'catastrophic rise' in suicides, violence and disorder.

She agreed that more freedom for governors, access to modern IT, 'sensible plans' for release on temporary license and constructive use of tagging to curtail liberty should all be part of a modern justice system. “But reform will run into the sand unless government is prepared to tackle prison numbers and introduce major sentencing reform as part of its groundbreaking Prisons Bill,” Ms Lyon asserted.


Matters to be addressed

At the beginning of the week the Justice Committee report was published which lambasted the state of violence, access to drugs, mental health and low staff morale and conditions that exist in many prisons.

In a speech last week to the Governing Governors' Forum, Michael Gove accepted that rehabilitation was the 'principal purpose of prison' and those who had offended were unlikely to take the right road 'if, during their time in custody, they live in squalid conditions, face daily indignities and don’t have the chance to form relationships based on mutual respect.'

The was probably a large, collective intake of breath from the assembled gathering when Gove carried on his speech by saying he believed this could be done through ridding governors of unnecessary bureaucracy. “We want you to dare to be different – to exercise as much autonomy as possible – to be guided by moral purpose not manuals and rulebooks in your mission to change lives for good.”

The Howard League of Penal Reform which has been in the vanguard of critics opposed to many changes in the prison system, was surprisingly equivocal in its response to some of the proposals by Gove. Its CEO and veteran campaigner, Frances Crook, welcomed more autonomy for governors, improvements to education and what she termed 'a more sensible approach' to release on temporary licence that she agreed were all steps in the right direction.
However, she went on to state: "There is no public service in such disarray as the prisons and the rising number of assaults, deaths by suicide and incidents of self-injury show that the need for change is urgent.”
Crook argued it was less than helpful for the proposal to tag people during the week and lock them up at weekends. “After the embarrassing disasters with tagging by private security companies, we should look to more creative ways to ease people into the community safely,” she observed. “Ultimately, the success of these reforms will depend on whether the government introduces positive measures to tackle overcrowding by driving down prison numbers.”

Picture:   The Queen’s Speech has placed prison reform in a central position but critics wonder if it can deliver with limited resources 

Article written by Mike Gannon | Published 18 May 2016


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