Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Unchanging Prisons, Losing Lives?

Changing Prisons, Saving Lives, the report of the independent review of self- inflicted deaths by young adults in custody gives a refreshingly honest if depressing account of the realities of prison. It rightly damns “grim environments, bleak and demoralising to the spirit”, questioning whether penal establishments need to be as harsh and comfortless as young people find them to be.

Rightly the report argues that life in prison should approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community but it confirms the yawning gap (illustrated in most Inspection reports)  between what is supposed to happen and what actually does. In one symbolic respect, even what Prison Instructions require - that prisoners are afforded a minimum of 30 minutes in the open air daily- fails to meet the best known  international norm of an hour’s fresh air a day -something which is managed in many much less well-resourced prison systems around the world.

So what are the prospects of Harris's 108 recommendations being accepted and then implemented? Originally the intention was apparently to publish a government response alongside the review report but its easy to see why that option was ditched. At least one of the MoJ ministers Dominic Raab wrote in 2011 about the unwelcome belief that prisoners should be treated in prison in a way that reflects the normal life of freedom that all citizens generally enjoy. He and his co-authors of were “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. If Gove or Andrew Selous shares those views, they would have been given more than a pause for thought by the recommendation that following each self-inflicted death in custody, the Minister for Prisons should personally phone the family of the prisoner who has died to express their condolences on behalf of the State and to promise that a full and thorough investigation will take place, and that any lessons from the death will be studied and acted upon to avoid similar deaths in the future.

Even if Gove took a more sympathetic stance, many of the recommendations have pound signs all over them and with the MoJ looking to find another £250 million savings this year, the calls for more and better trained staff will be seen as unaffordable.  The report is right to say of course that a reduction in the prison population will enable prisons to provide better conditions and regimes. But Gove is probably aware of what happened to Kenneth Clarke when he sought to bring the prison population down. He went down with it.  The MoJ will consider the recommendations “carefully and respond to the report in the autumn”.

What’s the likely outcome then? In a chapter in a forthcoming book on the management of change in criminal justice, I look at the impact of three previous inquiries- Woolf’s Strangeways report, Lord Keith’s inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarak  and the Corston review of women’s imprisonment. The conclusion was that they all resulted in important improvement but in each case the most important recommendations were not accepted. In the case of Woolf , the government refused to place strict  limitations on prison overcrowding; in Keith , the prison service never properly reviewed whether the advantages of holding young offenders on the same wing as adult offenders outweigh the disadvantages; and  Corston’s radical vision for small prison units for 20-30 women  was never taken up . Nor was her call for prison to be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public. I argued that without these central recommendations, the chance of radical change was scuppered.


If the Harris review goes the same way, we may well see action on many of the welcome technical recommendations for preventing and reducing self- harm and suicide and even some changes to inspection and monitoring. But the two central arguments may not find favour; first that more vulnerable young adults should be kept out of prison and second that we need a new statement of purpose emphasising the centrality of rehabilitation. Without these, it will be a case of unchanging prisons and losing lives.

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