Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Brave New World or False Dawn? The Tory Agenda on Prison Reform

I haven’t checked but I’d guess that prison policy has seldom made it into a Prime Minister’s Tory party conference speech. On the face of it, David Cameron’s promise that “this is going to be a big area of social reform in the next five years” should be hugely welcomed by those of us who want to see radical improvements in the way we punish people in conflict with the law.

There’s no denying the Conservatives have come a long way since I (and Cameron as it happens) worked in the Home Office twenty years ago. When then Home Secretary Michael Howard (for whom Cameron worked as special adviser) announced in 1993 that prison works, he invited a victim of rape to address the conference. Yesterday Michael Gove was preceded by an ex offender made good and went on to say that “the best criminal justice policies are good welfare, social work and child protection policies”.

So are we about to enter a golden age of change in which offences are decriminalised, vulnerable people diverted away from the courts, greater use made of community based sentences and shorter prison terms served in genuinely rehabilitative facilities?  

Three big question marks hang over the reform policy. First of course is the strength of the political will behind it. Gove may have complained yesterday that those sent to prison spend their sentences in enforced idleness but he was quoting almost word for word what Kenneth Clarke had told the conference five years ago. Despite Coalition with a party with a track record of commitment to penal  reform , prison policy and practice was something of a disaster between 2010 and 2015. Partly this was because Clarke did not last -and there must be long odds on Gove staying the course. One wonders how widely his reforming zeal is shared- presumably not by Mrs May.

The cynic may wonder too if the PM’s apparent conversion to the cause may be in part to prepare his troops for a climb-down on votes for prisoners.  Once Cameron has taken his anti-emetic, bowed to the inevitable need to allow some prisoners at least to vote,  perhaps the party will return to a more familiar stance – particularly if by then he has  lost Gove  his “the great Conservative Reformer”.

The second problem is the money.  Gove’s laudable desire for more education and help for prisoners to address the often catastrophic life experiences which have led them into jail does not come cheap. Even training prisons for young offenders – the highest priority in a sensible system- have been pared back so that almost half of prisoners are kept in their cells all day. On the day Gove made his speech, the Prison Inspectorate was describing Aylesbury YOI as having a very poor regime that fosters inactivity and indolence. The reason? Chronic staff shortages.

With at least 25% further cuts to come, Gove will have to explain sooner or later how he will do more with less. He may have been able to conjure up a standing ovation by calling for better prisons but he’ll need to magic up some serious funds to create them. Selling off inner city jails may help but there are sequencing problems in that strategy - developers won’t take kindly to Gove’s brand of sitting tenants.    The cynic may wonder too whether Gove’s plan to give Governors greater responsibilities may be a way of sloughing off his own. Without enough staff, the most able governors will struggle to cope let alone innovate.

There is of course a way of solving the money problem which is to lock up fewer people for shorter periods.  But this is the third and biggest problem. Cameron urged us to “get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this”. The reference may be to the "Smart on Crime" movement in the US, but there, behind the neutral sounding slogan is some pretty serious “let em out”. Indeed the Justice Department is about to release 6,000 drug offenders serving terms now considered way too harsh.

Yet sentencing reform does not seem on the agenda here at all and restrictions being introduced on cautioning fly in the face of the first smart on crime principle which is to prioritise prosecutions on the most serious cases.


It may be that the government will be able to pursue alternatives to prison for low level non- violent crimes; Cameron suggested that “where it makes sense, let’s use electronic tags to help keep us safe and help people go clean”. But let’s remember David Blunkett was heralding tags as Prisons without Bars a decade ago and they have delivered considerably less in the meantime. And diverting short term prisoners away from custody doesn't save you much in the great scheme of things.

Where the Coalition government has taken action is in trying to improve re-entry to curb repeat offences. But the results of the introduction of post release supervision for all prisoners (let alone the impact of the wholesale re-organisation of the probation service deemed necessary to fund it) are not yet known.

Lack of evidence about success may not stand in the away of a similar regime change in the prison system. Cameron’s description of prisons as “a service run by the state that all too often fails and entrenches poverty” suggests radical change may be on the way. Whether it will bring with it radical improvement must be open to doubt.

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