In this guest blog Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), explores the main themes from a recent Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) paper on how to engage the voluntary sector in the government’s prison reform programme. He gives his views about some of the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Peter is a member of the RR3, an advisory group to the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service which Clinks chairs and provides the secretariat for.
A couple of months ago I feel I had some kind of symbolic induction to being part of the voluntary sector working in prisons. It was all quite congenial, with an appointment to see a prison Governor, but waiting for 45 minutes at the prison gate alongside an increasing, and increasingly varied, selection of people whose working day depended on being allowed in. Ultimately, however, the politeness of the staff and the Dunkirk spirit of my fellow travellers didn't quite compensate for the frustration of being kept so firmly at arm's length.
There's a risk that the same thing happens, metaphorically, when it comes to policy making about prisons. So hats off to the previous prisons minister, Andrew Selous, and his officials for inviting the RR3 to share its insight into how the voluntary sector can contribute during this crucial period, when the bones of a White Paper and a Prison Reform Bill are forming. Produced in response to this request, Prison reform and the voluntary sector is the third in a series of Clinks publications about the rehabilitative prison. The other papers are entitled, the Rehabilitative Prison: Good engagement with the voluntary sector and the Rehabilitative Prison: What does ‘good’ look like?
Prison reform and the voluntary sector maintains the series’ habit of making practical suggestions rather than aspirational statements, and in doing so points to some underlying policy questions which the promised White Paper should be aiming to answer.
The role of the voluntary sector
The first section deals with the role of the voluntary sector in supporting rehabilitation. We know that the Government considers this ‘a good thing’; Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) took it as axiomatic that rehabilitation would be done better with the voluntary sector in tow. But as Clinks' admirably balanced and evidenced project trackTR is showing, willing the end is not the same as willing the means, and those designing prison reforms have more to learn from what TR has not achieved so far on this than from what it has achieved.
Two policy issues seem to me to be central:
- The first is that the reason the voluntary sector has so much to offer on rehabilitation is that it is overwhelmingly local, as is the business of resettlement. Prison reform should be about making most imprisonment a locally delivered and locally accountable service. Lord Woolf made this a central part of his prescription for prison reform in the 1990s, but a relentless national pressure on space has kept it at bay ever since. PRT published Strangeways: 25 years which assesses the progress made against the 12 main recommendations Lord Woolf made in his 1991 report for a more fair and just prison system.
- The second is that voluntary sector involvement in rehabilitation makes sense because the sector leads the way in ‘doing desistance’. Voluntary sector organisations almost invariably take as read the need to involve the service user in decision-making and tailor their services to the individual. This is one of the reasons why the sector has so much to offer in supporting people with protected characteristics. Prison reform must do likewise, but this represents a serious challenge to a system founded on categories and cohorts. This current focus can make the prisoner a commodity to be passed around an inconvenient estate, not an individual facing a moment of personal crisis when communication with ‘home’ (whatever that might be) is crucial.
The paper's second section deals with opening and closing prisons. Estate planning over the next year or so may well be the one aspect of prison reform that the CJS is still living with in 30 or 50 years' time, but at the moment it feels like a secretive process. The paper's call for both the location and design of the future prison estate to be opened up for debate to the voluntary sector holds true for a much wider audience too. We have a tremendous opportunity to plan for a much smaller estate holding far fewer people closer to home, and an approach to sentence planning and rehabilitation that places reintegration into the community at its heart from day one. The driving principles for estate planning need a decent airing. Cost to build and cost to run both matter - it's public money that will fund this - but they need to sit alongside a vision of what we want imprisonment to look like for decades to come.
The last section of the paper looks at how best practice in working with the voluntary sector might be developed in the early adopter reform prisons, a difficult question with little information available about the long-term plan. Payment by results pilots were superseded by the masterplan of TR long before they were evaluated and the same may well be true of the early adopter reform prisons, so the paper's recommendations about accountability and performance frameworks are especially well directed.
And is there a space for the voluntary sector to do more than just provide services to reform prisons? If academies are the model, as the previous Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove has suggested, the voluntary sector should probably have an ambition to put its principles to the test across a whole institution.
The RR3, supported by Clinks, will continue to engage with the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service to ensure the engagement between prisons and the voluntary sector continues. The next meeting of the RR3 will take place in August and all the minutes and notes from previous meetings can be accessed here.
If you have any comments or questions about the issues Peter has raised in his blog, please leave a comment below.
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.@hibiscuscharity have launched a report - funded by Clinks - which explores the complex issues faced by Black, minoritised and migrant women in contact with the CJS and the resulting impacts on their mental health.
Read the report here: https://hibiscusinitiatives.org.uk/media/2023/06/rmc-mental-health-report-document.pdf