As part of the celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, today has seen efforts to promote the rules bearing his name which seek to establish minimum standards for the world’s prisons. The first of these rules states that “the safety and security of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times”.
How shameful therefore that today also saw the Chief Inspector of Prisons publish a damning indictment of the prison system in England and Wales. A year ago, in his 2015-16 report, Peter Clarke found that too many prisons had become violent and dangerous places. Far from seeing improvements since then, things have got even worse with “startling increases in all types of violence”. Surely, it is- or should be- a national scandal that there was not a single establishment that Clarke inspected in 2016-17 in which it was safe to hold children and young people.
There may be some satisfaction but limited value in allocating blame for what is in truth a collective failure over the last seven years. Successive Justice Secretaries since 2010 should carry the bulk of the can. In the Coalition years, Kenneth Clarke made a gung- ho financial settlement with the Treasury which he failed to adjust when his plans to reduce the size of the prison population crashed and burned. His successor, Chris Grayling focussed on making the prison system “cheaper not smaller” by allowing it to remain largely publicly run in return for reckless staff reductions. The Lib Dem Coalition partners were silent throughout.
Post 2015 when prison reform allegedly became a top social justice priority, Michael Gove was allowed to pontificate endlessly while conditions in jail continued to deteriorate. It’s perhaps only been Liz Truss who came close to recognising the scale of the crisis and started to get staff back on the landings.
There are questions too for the senior officials in the Ministry of Justice who could arguably have put more obstacles on the path to destruction. Exactly ten years ago, the Labour government were forced to release prisoners 18 days early to combat overcrowding. Ministers took flak for the End of Custody Licence Scheme but had been told by officials that the system couldn’t cope without it. One would like to think today’s generation of prison bosses at least suggested something similar. The Youth Justice Board too fell asleep at the wheel of the children’s secure estate and has now been relieved of those duties.
In truth, there are uncomfortable questions about the arrangements as a whole. Can a monitoring system said to be working when most Inspectorate recommendations are not achieved, and the Ombudsman finds prisons unable to learn lessons from his reports? It is dispiriting that pre 2017 election plans to strengthen monitoring bodies and require a response to what they say have been scrapped.
On the wider front, the Justice Committee has found it hard to hold ministers to account in Parliament. Perhaps like some of civil society they have been taken in by the grandiose rhetoric around prison reform. While looking at the stars they have forgotten that prisons are in the gutter.
Peter Clarke says, without conviction, that he hopes sharper responses to his Inspectorate reports can be realised through administrative directions. For all our sakes, a much more comprehensive set of answers are required to the grave charges he makes in his annual report.