In February, David Cameron set out an ambitious, exciting vision for prison reform. Next week, we will see whether he can really bring it to life.
Those of us who work in the sector have thought a lot about the potential of the Prisons Bill. It’s not hard to find the incentive for change; today’s prison estate is failing many. It fails offenders, with its lack of rehabilitative care. It fails prison officers, with its unsafe conditions. It fails society, by spitting out individuals likely to offend again.
The current system – and we must accept our part in it – focuses on punishment, containment and management. These punitive measures are underpinned by siloed and bureaucratic processes. By ignoring the high and complex needs of the offender, prisons have become a revolving door of recidivism. This must change, and soon. The prison reforms we hope for will create a justice system that work for the victims, for the community – but also, crucially, for the offender.
The justice sector has been loud in its praise for Michael Gove’s reform programme so far, and we hope that the gap between expectation and reality is not too wide. For the first time in a decade, there is the potential to have policy which looks beyond the height of prison walls to the people within. The Prime Minister’s speech signalled legislation that will reform the physical prison estate, give autonomy to governors, and engage the community in delivering justice. These are beautiful, ambitious concepts but, to become reality, they must not be hamstrung by bureaucratic processes and investment in the status quo.
Cameron has signalled his intent to build nine new prisons, replacing the old Victorian estate. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that being housed in cramped, tired conditions can have on a person. This isn’t a case of creating ‘holiday camps’ for prisoners. Rather, it’s a pragmatic choice: do we want to create conditions which encourage rehabilitation, or not? Modern prisons are designed for this purpose, filled with workshops, classrooms and technology that frees up prison workers to focus on building relationships. This isn’t to miss the fact that prison exists as punishment: a loss of freedom is a given, but scrimping on rehabilitation ends up costing society far more down the line.
An important reform is the plan to put power back into the hands of prison governors. A governor is very much like the CEO of a medium size company. They may have 700 staff, 1200 prisoners, running a 24 hour operation. But unlike being CEO of a company, the current centralised process means that a governor has very little power over choosing their suppliers. They have little power over terms of their contracts, and yet they are held to account for their results.
To an outsider, the penal process may look simple (prisoner is sentenced, serves their time and is released). The reality is a huge number of suppliers working within a prison, from the education provider, through to one-man-band charities. An offender might work with 15 different organisations on his path to rehabilitation. He’ll meet a different person dealing with his debt, housing, drug addiction, child support, and mental health issues. A new set of paperwork every time. This artificially siloed model leads to a lack of ownership of results, and means that that far too many offenders emerge blinking from the prison gate and swiftly fall through the cracks. Working across 22 prisons and young offender institutions, our evidence shows that what is most effective is having one case worker, who supports the offender to and through the prison gates, and even after release, drawing in subject expertise when needed. The current contracts system means this just isn’t possible.
Giving governors autonomy could go some way to solving this. A governor will be able to choose the partners that will work best for their prisoners, and their budget. He or she will have the ability to design specific programmes that address the needs of their prisoners. He will be able to establish their own culture within their staff and their gates. Importantly, they will also be able to reach out into the community and create pathways which support the work done inside the prison.
It is impossible to benchmark governors’ reoffending rate when they have no influence over the conditions in which individuals reoffend. Conditions in the community must change, too. A successful governor will be a ‘placemaker’, an ambassador for the prison spending a good chunk of their time building relationships in the community. Governor autonomy could see prisons fully integrated into their local community, connected with organisations offering jobs and opportunities on the outside.
A successful Prisons Bill will be one that creates levers that ensure communities buy in to the success of their local prisons and are mandated to provide the jobs and housing that we know cuts reoffending. When I moved house, my wife and I checked the ratings of our local primary schools. Can the proposed prison league tables create a culture where new residents check the efficacy of local prisons?
A good public service is one that is human, unlocks capacity, and delivers local accountability. In justice, this means that the system appreciates the offender for what they are – imperfect and curious human beings, flawed but also social, just like everyone else. The solution is breaking free of red tape and providing an offender with a purposeful path through the system, out the other side and onto better things. Gove understands this – now we hope next week’s speech will confirm the legislature around it.