Festus was the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for West Ham constituency at 2015 General Election. He runs his own business and also works in Parliament.
A few weeks ago, I was involved in an OFSTED preparation meeting for the offender learning arm of a service provider to a large number of prisons.
In attendance were prison governors, curriculum directors, probation officers and seasoned professionals in the offender rehabilitation sector.
What was most striking to me was the absolute focus on positive outcomes for the offenders and the sheer amount of acronyms. At one point I had to ask what on earth some of these meant – most of which I forgot by lunch break! What also stuck with me was a response to a question I asked one of the governors.
When several attendees mentioned how courses were being abandoned or tweaked due to poor attendance, and knowing that good attendance is a positive for an OFSTED assessment, I was rather shocked to be told something I had never thought of before.
Simply put, you have to go through several procedures in order to release just one prisoner to attend a class by a certain time. For someone who has merely mentored and visited people in prison, I don’t get to see this side of prison life. Risk assessments, gang dynamics, mental ill health and medical needs etc are all issues that have to be considered when releasing a single inmate to be escorted to a secure room depending on the category of the prison.
One need not be a genius to know that where the staff to inmate ratio drops below a certain level, it becomes more difficult to manage such moves. One of the governors told me how prison officers simply do not have the time nor the capacity to do these complex and very serious tasks.
If we want our prisons to work better as centres for rehabilitation, education, and reformation we must have adequate levels of qualified staffing and activities to achieve these. I am not talking about computer games or football – but rather activities which ensure inmates come out of prison better citizens than they came in.
Here are a few reasons why we simply have no choice but to make our prisons work better than now.
Four to five prisoners die each week in our prisons with two being self-inflicted deaths. There are 500 self-harm incidents, more than 300 assaults and 70 assaults on staff, including nine serious attacks. According to the Ministry of Justice, this is a typical week in a British prison.
Furthermore, the number of first time offenders is falling. Conversely, the rate of re-offending is rising. The cost of re-offending is now estimated at nearly £15 billion per year. This is more than half of the entire government expenditure on transportation or 1.5 times the cost of the London Olympics. Note that this is just the cost of re-offending alone.
(Rates of re-offending by duration of prison sentence)
I was very encouraged by the trajectory of reform being introduced when Michael Gove was Justice Secretary. These sadly did not appear to have been backed up by the resources required. Today, the new Justice Secretary, Lizz Truss has announced much needed investment in making our prisons safer and more fit for purpose with funding for 2000 additional trained officers.
These could not come soon enough but I worry as to how capable people could be enticed to become prison officers given the tough working conditions across our prison estate. Retention levels are woeful due to stress, safety concerns, pay etc.
Some figures suggest that the number of prison officers have been reduced by nearly a third between 2010 and 2015, while prison population remains on the rise. This announcement, committing £100 million, means there would be one prison officer to six inmates.
This is much better than what we have now but not at the same level as pre-2010, though I doubt this will ever be the case again.
Nevertheless, I do not for one moment suppose this is simply a numbers game. It would be naive to think that by simply recruiting more prison officers, our prisons will automatically become safer and more effective at rehabilitating offenders. Not so. It does however, provide a conducive environment in which practitioners are able to deliver a much needed and reformative service to the wider society in our prisons.
Surely, given the weight of evidence that confronts us and the abominably high cost of continuing as we have done, we must seriously look at our criminal justice system, rate of imprisonment and offender rehabilitation approach.
If we want prison to become more of a place for rehabilitation and education, the least we should have in place is a safe means of ensuring inmates can get to a classroom to gain skills that could help them become more employable upon release – thus minimising the risk of re-offending. I hope today’s announcement by the Justice Secretary goes a long way in making this happen.