On Monday I was in the audience at the Policy Exchange waiting for the first speech in 20 years from a Prime Minister on the subject of prison reform – surely indicative of just how taboo this topic is for a politician to speak on and how often people in prison are literally and figuratively hidden from the public eye. You might ask why Michael Gove wasn’t giving the speech, but whatever your answer the fact remains that this is the highest endorsement the Ministry of Justice could have hoped for.
The past few weeks have been busy for anyone interested in criminal justice, you’d be forgiven for not having the time to digest everything. The Prime Minister’s ‘life chances’ speech on 11th January mentioned people in prisons, and he followed that up with the announcement that David Lammy MP will lead a review in racial bias in the Criminal Justice System. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, delivered a speech on the future of Police and Crime Commissioners which confirmed they are here to stay and suggested their powers might extend. We have seen the publication of Charlie Taylor’s interim report into a wide-ranging review of the Youth Justice System. All of this came not long after the announcement that HMP Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Europe, would be closed and that the government plans to open nine new prisons.
In this blog I’ll focus on the speech delivered by David Cameron and some of the youth justice review, but if you’re interested in the above announcements have a look at our other blogs on Theresa May’s PCC speech and David Lammy’s racial bias review.
A new tone for the Justice debate?
The tone of Michael Gove’s speeches as justice secretary have been refreshingly reform-focussed, with an acknowledgement that our prisons, in particular, need to change. The Prime Minister used a similar tone, saying, “it can be easy for us all …to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. I want this government to be different”, going on to say that “we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.”
Not everything is changing though. We did hear more well-trod lines, such as, “I never want us to forget that it is the victims of crime who should always be our principal priority”, and “Some people – including, of course, rapists, murderers, child abusers, gang leaders – belong in prisons. For me, punishment – that deprivation of liberty – is not a dirty word.”
Much of the tone is to be welcomed, despite the addition of what are often perceived as necessary caveats for a politician when talking about people convicted and sentenced to prison.
The failures of our system
The Prime Minister’s statement that “the failure of our system today is scandalous” will be welcomed by many prison reformers and it echoed some of what Nick Hardwick, outgoing chief inspector of prisons, has said in successive inspection reports. The speech reinforced much of what we know about the poor life chances for people in prison, low educational attainment, homelessness, addiction, mental ill-health, poverty and social exclusion that lead to high levels of re-offending (60% of short-sentenced prisoners and 46% of all prisoners re-offend within a year of release). These issues have been documented with clarity by the Prison Reform Trust in their prison factfile - The Bromley briefings, which always make for a sobering read.
The speech also talked about the warehousing of ever more prisoners not being financially sustainable or cost-effective, while letting other parts of the failing Criminal Justice System ‘off the hook’. Is it mistaken to read this as reinforcing other hints that local areas could be asked to take back full responsibility for some of their most vulnerable citizens, rather than expecting a national agency like NOMS to absorb the full cost of housing and rehabilitating them under such adverse conditions?
The four principles of reform
So how are these reforms meant to turn around a failing prison system that is rife with self-harm, suicides, and assaults on prison staff? How can these reforms change the outcomes for people in prison, and those due to be released? Well, the Prime Minister grouped them into four broad areas of reform: autonomy, accountability, addressing failure, and a combination of evidence and technology to deliver better outcomes. I’ll summarise what was said under each heading.
Principle one: “give much greater autonomy to the professionals who work in our public services, and allow new providers and new ideas to flourish.”
This reform was described by the Prime Minister as “exactly what we did in education – with academies, free schools and new freedoms for heads and teachers”. The first justice review to be announced by this Government was a review into prison education, Michael Gove is the former Secretary of State for Education and the person heading up the youth justice review, Charlie Taylor, has an education background - there is a clear precedent for bringing an education focus into the justice arena.
The Prime Minister argued that there is far too much bureaucracy in our prison system, with 924 prison instructions dictating in detail the way prison governors have to run their establishment. So the solution is to “give prison governors unprecedented operational and financial autonomy…. They’ll be given a budget and total discretion over how to spend it.” This will be piloted in six ‘reform prisons’ in 2016. As we haven’t been told which ones yet, we can only assume this is still being decided upon.
So what sort of things will these prison governors be able to do? The Prime Minister mentioned a few things:
- They will be able to opt-out of national contracts and choose their own suppliers; we don’t know which ones though. Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) has been mentioned, but what about aspects of probation services in prison? Or the contract with the Samaritans for the listener’s scheme? Would family services in prison come under this banner?
- They can transfer money from different pots to fund their own priorities; we aren’t sure yet how will these be decided upon, but we would want to see the voluntary sector taking a key role in helping to shape those priorities, and a mechanism for prisoners themselves to shape services.
- They are allowed to tailor their own regimes; meaning that they can decide things like the amount of time spent out of cell doing purposeful activity; we know that many voluntary sector organisations have struggled to get space and time to spend with people in prison, so this could create more flexibility.
After the pilots the government will look to pass a new ‘prisons bill’ in the next session of Parliament; the bill will aim to “spread these principles across the rest of the prison estate”. Clinks will keep the sector informed as to how this develops, not least because the Prime Minister said he expects the voluntary sector to play a key part in both in the ‘reform prisons’ and the five new prisons to be built by 2020. He said the following:
“…because the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in prisons has been one of the most important drivers of change in this system since the 1990s, we’ll ensure there is a strong role for businesses and charities in the operation of these reform prisons and the new prisons we will build in this Parliament.”
Similar reforms will also be implemented in the Youth Justice System. The interim report of Charlie Taylor’s review into youth justice has been published and focusses largely on the establishment of “secure alternative provision academies”, turning Young Offender Institutions into a type of free school. Clinks are running three consultation events on this review of youth justice in London, Bristol and Newcastle over the next few weeks. – click here to book your place.
Principle two: “hold these providers and professionals to account with real transparency over outcomes”.
The Prime Minister announced the development of a league table for prisons and total transparency of monitoring data such as “reoffending levels compared to a predicted rate; employment outcomes for prisoners; whether or not the offender went into permanent accommodation; and what progress was made on basic literacy and key skills.”
He also announced that the government would be considering tools “like payment for performance” to incentivise staff and other improvements. Given concerns over payment by results models in new probation services, there is likely to be a lot of scrutiny from the sector on this development.
The voluntary sector may well ask how principles such as desistance theory are incorporated into the outcomes framework discussed above. Clinks will be interested to see whether new ‘reform prisons’ could change how people’s progress in prison is monitored and whether that positively affects how motivated they are to change.
Principle three: “intervene decisively and dramatically to deal with persistent failure, or to fix the underlying problems people may have.”
The Prime Minister was clear that much needed to be done earlier to divert people from prison, emphasising the need to get better at recognising how the harm caused at an early age funnels some people into the justice system, and improving life chances through earlier intervention.
“…we have to recognise that the prison population draws mostly from the ranks of those whose life chances were shot to pieces from the start. This doesn’t excuse where they ended up, nor does it say anything about the anguish they caused for victims. But it does, I believe, help to explain what’s happening.”
His solution focused firstly on the closure of old prisons that aren’t fit for purpose, and the opening of nine new prisons (five by 2020) with the £1.3 billion committed by the treasury. But the speech focussed on what needed to be in new prisons and how they should be run, not just the physical building itself.
Prison education was described as “not producing anything like the results we need”. The Prime Minister accepted the recommendations of Dame Sally Coates’ review of prison education, which include letting prison governors bring in new providers and protecting prison education budgets (currently standing at £130 million per year). The review will also recommend that the government attract more new teachers to prison by setting up a new social enterprise to recruit graduates, similar to the Teach First; this organisation will be chaired by David Laws, former Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil and Schools Minister under the coalition government.
Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, have been asked to collaborate on diverting people with severe mental health issues out of the prison system where they clearly don’t belong. As for supporting people’s mental health in prison the Prime Minister announced a move towards full co-commissioning of mental health services for prison governors and NHS England. This approach will be trialled in ‘reform prisons’ and if successful will be underpinned in legislation by the new prisons bill, and will be rolled out across the prison estate from 2017.
Principle four: “use the latest behavioural insights evidence and harness new technology to deliver better outcomes.”
This part of the speech focussed on some very specific interventions that the Prime Minister thought should be introduced. One of those is an import from Hawaii where ‘swift and certain’ justice has been introduced to deal with people convicted of drug offences. This includes a 24 to 28 hour period of imprisonment if they are found to be using drugs. The Prime Minister claims that as result of this intervention, these swift punishments are a real deterrent from crime, bringing about change and reduced re-offending.
The other announcement focusses upstream on the sentencing of people in ‘problem-solving courts’. The Prime Minister announced that a working group has been set up to look into how this can be taken forward. This approach has for a long time been actively supported by the Centre for Justice Innovation. Although earlier in his speech the Prime Minister had said that he wouldn’t argue to ‘neuter’ judges’ sentencing powers, these new courts may provide some of the sentencing reform many campaigners have called for, especially if we are to see a reduction in the prison population.
Technology was on the agenda, the focus landed firmly on the use of satellite tracking tags, also commonly referred to as GPS tagging. The Prime Minister felt that this technology could be used to “revolutionise the way we release prisoners on licence at the end of a sentence, and dramatically toughen up community sentences.” The intention is to do two big pilots later this year and roll this out before the end of this parliament.
It’s likely that at least one of these pilots will be for women in the Criminal Justice System – but we don’t have any more detail on how that will be used to support their desistance from crime or diversion from custody. The main focus of his statement was on women with babies in prison, “I want us to find alternative ways of dealing with women offenders with babies, including through tagging, problem-solving courts and alternative resettlement units.”
Finally the Prime Minister focused on how prisoners can get a job and the barrier caused by having to declare your previous convictions before you are even considered for an interview. He voiced his support for the Business in the Community led ‘ban the box’ campaign which calls for employers to create fair opportunities for people with previous convictions by removing the tick box from application forms and delaying disclosure in the recruitment process. The Prime Minister made clear his commitment clear, “I believe in leading by example, I can announce today that every part of the Civil Service will be ‘banning the box’ in these initial recruitment stages.” This has long been supported by our members Unlock, Nacro, St Giles Trust, Working Chance, Recruit with Conviction and Media for Development who have formed a vital part of the campaign to have this policy adopted.
It’s hard to summarise or make general statements on such a wide ranging speech. What we can welcome is the attention that prisons are getting, and the recognition that they’re not working as they should or could.
Clinks will be asking how the voluntary sector can play a vital role in shaping these ambitious reforms. There is doubtless much that can be learned from the work organisations already do in prisons every day and there should be a space where the sector can articulate its views and offer support to the Ministry of Justice. We hope that Clinks can facilitate that. Our good prison project has already talked to voluntary sector organisations across the country and we will be producing a discussion paper on what a good prison looks like later this year.
As always with the announcement of big reforms, there are also a lot of questions. Which prisons will be closed? Where will the ‘reform prisons’ be? How do we design better prison regimes? How do we make service user voice heard in that process? How could governors better engage with the voluntary sector? What does this mean for the women’s custodial estate? What impact does this have on new probation arrangements? What impact will this have on the structure of NOMS as responsibility, accountability and budget get devolved to governors?
At the forefront of Clinks’ strategy will be how we ensure the voluntary sector has the ability to be strategically involved and operationally useful in these reforms. But we also want to help join the dots, supporting the Ministry of Justice and NOMS to think about: how David Lammy’s review into racial bias and the work of the Young Review can help address better outcomes for BAME people in prison; how we use what we know about good quality trauma-informed services for women; better approaches for young adults; supporting people with multiple needs including homelessness, mental ill-health and issues with addiction; how we can embed the role of arts in the rehabilitation of people in prison.
So there’s a big ask of the voluntary sector to get involved in another large-scale reform, a lot of unknowns, but potentially a significant opportunity to see some pro-active change which as always we’ll approach with an open mind.
Reflections on the Race and Justice Network
Latest on Twitter
We have published our annual report and financial statements 2021-22. The report sets out our activities, achievements this year and plans for future work towards our strategic goals. Read the full report here: https://bit.ly/3iMbdX7