Prison bars

Strip away all the legislative details, and Michael Gove’s school reforms were about one thing: improving things for parents and their children. They were not teacher-orientated reforms, although, as he used to say, good teachers would thrive upon them. Instead, they aimed to improve schools for those who are actually schooled within them.

Well, now that Michael Gove is Secretary of State for Justice, he has another public service to oversee: prisons. But prisons are a very different creation from schools. The latticework of interested parties is much more complex, which in turn makes reform more complicated. Is prisons policy for the prisoners? Is it for the prison officers? Is it for the satisfaction of the victims? Is it for the safety of the general public? Or is it all of this and more?

But the main difference between prisons and schools is a simple one: we shouldn’t want people to go to prison. This is true for sentimental saps like me, who believe that incarceration is frequently a poor way of responding to crime. Yet it should also be true for the staunchest members of the lock-‘em-up club. After all, overfull prisons are a sign that people are committing lots of crimes in the first place – and no-one really wants that.

And it should certainly be true for anyone serving as Justice Secretary, especially with the public finances as they are. As I detailed in one of my To The Point posts, the prison population of England and Wales has swollen almost beyond containment over the past thirty years. In 1993, it was 45,000 souls. Now it’s over 85,000. With the average prisoner costing about £34,000 a year, that sort of expansion doesn’t come cheap.

The destination of these trends is even more spending. As it stands, the prisons estate has room for about 86,150 inmates, at which point we’ll have to start stuffing them into the cells and filing cabinets in police stations. And then? Gove’s own department forecasts that the number of prisoners will reach 90,000 in the next four years. The pressure to create more places will give him nosebleeds. But this isn’t like creating more places for schoolchildren. A new free school can quickly blossom in the soil of parental action. Whereas a new prison is a giant, expensive carbuncle on the land, which takes thousands of grudging man-hours to complete.

Of course, this isn’t just about the bottom line. In other recent To The Point posts, I’ve highlighted some of the all-too-human consequences of the prisons boom. Thanks to tougher sentences, the prison population is ageing. Thanks to overcrowding and all that entails, suicides are on the rise. Thanks to… ah, there are a hundred other sorry metrics I could use, from incidences of self-harm to the rate of reoffending. One of the tests of a civilised society ought to be how it treats those on its farthest outskirts. We’re not doing too well when it comes to prisoners.

But the bottom line is what often drives policy, so it is worth perching on it. This is why I go on about the Texan case so much. Several years ago, that good state’s Republican legislators faced the prospect of spending an extra $2 billion to accommodate the rising number of prisoners. But, baulking at that bill, they chose a different policy: fewer prisoners. A portion of the cash that would have been blown on new prisons was instead transferred to rehabilitation programmes. For drugs. For mental illnesses. For getting back into work. And the outcome? Not just a smaller prison population, but also less crime. Leniency works.

This lesson hasn’t been lost on our own legislators. The previous Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling – who was more moderate than the stone-faced caricatures would have you believe – managed to slow some of the upwards trends of the past few decades. The growth in prisoner numbers averaged only 0.2 per cent a year in the last Parliament; whereas, before that, it had been clipping along at a rate of 3.7 per cent. Spending was also reduced by about £1 billion.

Yet the finest single component of Grayling’s legacy is probably his Transforming Rehabilitation programme. He has written about it himself for this site, as have Edward Boyd and Paul Goodman, so I shan’t pile too many words on top of theirs. The basic idea is straight out of Texas: more time is spent cultivating those lower-risk offenders who are either just out of prison or serving community sentences. The cultivators are then paid by results – which is to say, by reducing reoffending.

This is now Gove’s programme to tend, and tend it he should. But he might also go further. Some have proposed that entire swathes of the criminal brotherhood, such as those committing non-violent property offences, be kept out of chokey and punished in different ways. This might mean more community sentences. But it might also mean more unique and untried sentences, such as having to compensate the victims of the original crime. This is supposed to leave the victims in a better place financially. And the perps in a better place spiritually.

It all reminds me of a speech that the Government’s Chief Whip delivered before the election, declaring that he and the Conservatives are “warriors for the dispossessed”. Now that he is Justice Secretary he has a real chance to prove it. There are few more dispossessed people than those whose grim circumstances push them towards crime. Few more dispossessed people than those who suffer as a result. They should occupy more of Gove’s time than even this vaunted British Bill of Rights.

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