Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Where are we now on Prison Reform?

I couldn’t follow Liz Truss’s speech to the Tory Conference this morning as I was visiting a prison where I’m doing a piece of work. When I arrived there, I was told the Governors were all in a debrief after a death in custody- yet another wasted life to reinforce the urgency of what the new ministerial team at Justice have to do.

From time to time, Tory party conferences have signalled important changes in prison policy. In 1979 William Whitelaw assured the faithful that short sharp shock detention centres would “be no holiday camps”. In 1993 Michael Howard gave them his 27 point Prison Works package, (funds for which had only been secured hours earlier in a Blackpool hotel room showdown with Chief Secretary Michael Portillo). Last year, Michael Gove won his audience round to redemption by introducing a charismatic ex- offender who now works to rehabilitate others. What of Liz Truss today?

There will be a welcome dollop of cash to stem the wounds inflicted by an ill- judged benchmarking exercise, which has seen prison staff cut by a fifth since 2010 and the loss of many experienced officers on whom stability in prison often depends. Of course prisons can use 400 new boots on the landings but a sustainable future surely needs proper long term resourcing not midyear handouts squeezed from the Treasury.

Recruiting personnel with a military background looks like an effort to recreate the past rather than the modern service we’ve been promised. Indeed the policy offers more than a nod to UKIP’s 2015 manifesto guarantee of a job offer in the police, prisons or border force for anyone who has served in the Armed Forces for a minimum of 12 years.  Unlike Howard, who illustrated his priorities by inviting a victim of a serious crime to address the 1993 conference or Gove with his ex-offender, Ms Truss at least resisted the temptation to surround herself with soldiers.

After mixed signals from the MoJ, prison reform is, it seems, back on. We will have to wait a few weeks for a plan with the promise of legislation in the New Year. These will announce a “vision for prison reform to 2020 and beyond” and “a blueprint for the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation”.  But haven’t we had enough visions and blueprints? It's eight months since David Cameron promised the biggest shake-up in the way our prisons are run since the Victorian times, let alone a generation.

The White Paper will surely need to be a bit more – I think the civil service word is- granular. More plainly, what exactly will be done to solve the crisis in our prisons in the short, medium and long term?

Ms Truss used to favour contracting out all prisons to the private sector on a payment by results basis but today’s damning criticisms of Community Rehabilitation Companies by the Probation Inspectorate makes no case at all for further privatisation. But who knows?  In a Through the Gate scheme that does work, one of the companies, Interserve,  announced today they have recruited Ian Mulholland the former Director of Public Prisons. Mulholland is apparently looking forward to helping grow the business: “The CRCs are our foothold in justice, if we are seen as the best provider we will strengthen our chances of winning more business”. Setting aside the supposed limitations on that particular revolving door, perhaps he knows something we don’t?  

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