Sunday, 14 February 2016

Between the Idea and the Reality Lies the Shadow- Where now for the Prison Reforms?

Prisons week in the UK is usually in the autumn – at least that’s when the Churches promote awareness of the needs of prisoners and their families in the UK. But it was last week that political and media interest in prison issues reached a level unseen since perhaps the Strangeways riot a quarter of a century ago. Starting with last Sunday’s government briefings on keeping mothers out of jail,  we heard about far reaching structural reform of prisons from the PM, and proposals for a complete overhaul of youth custody. The week ended with a front page splash in the Guardian about the possibility of a single supermax prison for terrorists, while Messrs Grayling and Gove tried to persuade Telegraph readers that there’s no contradiction between being tough on crime and smart on rehabilitation. Meanwhile, The Times carried an interview with youth justice reviewer Charlie Taylor that seemed almost as long as his interim report that came out on Tuesday.


What are we to make of the glut of policies, plans and schemes that have been put forward in the last seven days?  I have already suggested that there is more than a little rhetoric in the Government’s new found conversion to prison reform and much of what’s been announced will be difficult if not impossible to implement. Good luck to the civil servants who will have to make something of the big talk in the coming months and years.

One such senior official from the not so distant past has had interesting things to say about how criminal justice policies are formed and translated into practice. In his 2001 book Crime, State and Citizen, former Home Office mandarin David Faulkner identifies five laws of public administration which seem particularly relevant to last week’s proposals.  One is that there is a limit to the number of priorities to which any organisation can pay attention at any one time. There is a real risk that prison will move from being a victim of political neglect to one of over stimulation. NOMS Chief Michael Spurr told the Clinks AGM that after the election he had been hoping for a period of consolidation. Good luck with that one.

Another of Faulkner’s laws is that it is not possible indefinitely to do more with less. Bringing about improvements of the kind promised last week cannot plausibly be achieved without investment. It’s good that the prison education budget has been maintained but five years of  cuts in prison funding mean there’s a struggle to meet basic standards let alone achieve grandiose sounding advances.

Faulkner argued too that mistakes in matters of detail especially in the early stages of a policy can have a disproportionately damaging effect. While welcoming much of the thrust of the Taylor report, I must admit to frustration at how little detail appeared in the Youth Justice review- less broad brush more roller.  I was expecting some concrete proposals to comment on but there does not seem to be an opportunity to submit evidence at all.

A fourth insight concerns the way simplistic error drives out complex truth, with a temptation to rely on uncertain evidence because it is politically convenient. There looks to be a real risk of this in relation to the terrorist prison idea.  At a recent international roundtable on radicalisation “there was consensus that the optimal approach will vary from individual case to individual case; for example, a prisoner recently returned from Syria may in fact be disillusioned and not present a risk to other inmates in terms of radicalisation so it may be appropriate for him or her to be integrated with other inmates”. A single supermax would presumably not permit this. Even with the plan for tagging mothers, unless real thought is given to how individuals lead their lives, a well meaning  programme could be setting people up to fail.   

Finally Faulkner submitted that in almost areas of policy, dynamics count for more than structure. Structural change may be necessary but the impact on relationships, trust, confidence and motivation of those who work within the system need to be considered. Gove and Grayling give an upbeat assessment of the Probation reforms but they know that the jury is well and truly out. And it is surely worrying that the most far reaching reforms of prisons since Victorian times seem not to have involved the Prison Governors Association.  

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on wanting to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.  But between the idea and the reality lies the shadow .As prisons go back into the shadows this week, ministers and their officials will do well to remember Faulkner’s laws if they really want to see change.  

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