This morning Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice gave a speech to the Prisoner Learning Alliance. Since his appointment in May, the Secretary of State has been taking time to learn about his new brief and listening to a range of organisations and stakeholders. As a result, this speech has been hotly anticipated and it was a welcome opportunity to hear what the minister described as his observations so far which are guiding the shape of policies to come. However, he also stated that any firm proposals he makes for reform in the future will be rooted in evidence and subject to rigorous testing.
Michael Gove’s observations
The time the Secretary of State has spent learning about his new brief was clear through his description of the backgrounds that the majority of prisoners come from including time spent in care, being witness to domestic violence as a child, disrupted or difficult schooling, low level of educational attainments, high incidence of learning difficulties and disabilities, and a high incidence of drug use.
“Prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should”.
Michael Gove acknowledged the important role played by governors and prison staff as well as the range of partners that work alongside the prison service including “volunteers from the arts and workers from charitable organisations” whose work he described as “humbling and inspiring”.
He said that the commitment of these individuals to rehabilitation is made more and more difficult by an outdated, overcrowded and in far too many cases insanitary and inadequate prison estate, citing the high incidences of violence, drug taking and deaths in custody. As a result “prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should” and the cost of reoffending is borne by the poorest in society who are the most frequent victims of crime.
Dealing with these problems, he said, had to be the first priority as “Unless offenders are kept safe and secure, in decent surroundings, free from violence, disorder and drugs, then we cannot begin to prepare them for a better, more moral, life.”
“Prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments”.
He asserted that punishment is necessary and when rules are transgressed punishment should be swift and certain but that once “an offender is caught, convicted and sentenced, when they are placed in custody they are placed in our care” and “if we ensure prisons are calm, orderly, purposeful places where offenders can learn self-discipline, the skills and the habits which will prepare them for outside life then we can all benefit”.
He went on to echo his previous sentiments, when giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee on Wednesday that offenders can be supported to become assets to society.
“It is hard to imagine anything less likely to rehabilitate prisoners than days spent lying on their bunks in squalid cells watching day time TV”.
The Secretary of State described as profoundly concerning the evidence from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons annual review, that one fifth of prisoners are scarcely out of their cells for more than a couple of hours a day and that purposeful activity outcomes are only good or reasonably good in 25% of adult male prisons. He also pointed to the poor Ofsted inspection results of prison education and suggested that the reason for these outcomes is a lack of the right incentives for prisoners to learn or for prison staff to prioritise education.
The direction of future policy
While the Secretary of State made it clear that he was not announcing any solid policy proposals or programmes, his speech did include a number of ideas which indicate to some extent the direction of future policy.
Closure of ageing and ineffective inner city prisons
In response to the challenge of prison conditions, the Secretary of State said he thinks there is a need to close some of the ageing and ineffective prisons in our major cities. Selling off these inner city sites for development would raise significant revenue to build new prisons embodying higher standards and solving the problems of over-crowding. He also said it would provide an opportunity to design out the dark corners that facilitate bullying, drug taking and violence. However, no mention was made of the need to give consideration within any such proposals of ensuring prisons are accessible for family members and also able to maintain links with local communities that facilitate resettlement.
Earned release and privileges attached to education
To improve incentives for learning the Secretary of State said he was attracted to the idea of “earned release for those offenders who make a commitment to serious educational activity, who show by their changed attitude that they wish to contribute to society and who work hard to acquire proper qualifications which are externally validated and respected by employers”. Although not included in the speech, The Guardian has reported that he may be considering this proposal alongside plans to bring an end to automatic release, whereby prisoners are released on license after serving two thirds of their sentence.
He also suggested that more could be done to link the incentives and earned privileges scheme to attendance and achievements in education.
Increased autonomy for prison governors
According to the Secretary of State, one of the “biggest brakes on progress in our prisons is the lack of operational autonomy and genuine independence enjoyed by Governors”. Taking a cue from other public service reform, Michael Gove argued that operational freedom for good professionals drives innovation and improvement. Giving governors more control over education provision would, he argued, allow them to be more imaginative and demanding in what they expect of teachers and prisoners. This could be balanced, he suggested, by rigorous monitoring of educational attainment on entry and release to ensure that Governors are held accountable for outcomes and success could be rewarded.
A wider range of providers to reinforce a culture of innovation and excellence
Again, drawing on other areas of public policy, and in particular his previous department, education, as well as the recent probation reforms, the Secretary of State expressed an interest in widening the range of providers in prison education and also the management of young offenders and possibly the management of any new prisons built.
It is heartening to hear the Secretary of State recognise and acknowledge the concerning state of prisons in England and Wales as highlighted earlier this week in Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Annual Report which stated that outcomes for 2014-15 were at their worst for ten years, particularly in the male adult estate.
It is also positive to hear him highlight the range of complex needs of most of the offender population and Clinks welcomes his acknowledgment of the role of the voluntary sector in supporting their rehabilitation which we know plays a unique and vital role in individuals’ desistance from crime.
Clinks will be working closely with the Ministry of Justice as well as the National Offender Management Service to understand and influence government policy going forward. We will ensure that we advocate clearly for the role of the voluntary sector in making positive change happen across the prison estate, and within our probation services. If this is to be effective it will need to engage the resource and expertise of our sector, thinking through the needs of a diverse client group, and making sure that any policy changes are appropriate, proportionate, and effective.
You can read Michael Gove's speech in full on the Ministry of Justice website.