Putting Prisons Right

To achieve the radical reform Michael Gove is considering, means not only putting prison right but also putting it in its place. The Justice Secretary must reserve imprisonment as a punishment of last resort for serious and violent offenders in a balanced justice system. That is the right thing to do.

This week the outgoing Chief Inspector reports on prisons in severe decline. On Wednesday, without using the crisis word, the incoming Secretary of State for Justice in his first meeting with the new Justice Committee admits there are difficulties to be faced. On Friday Michael Gove gives his first speech on prisons.

No mystery that violence, self-harm and suicide rise sharply when you overcrowd prisons, reduce staff by almost one third, cut time out of cell and purposeful activity. The backdrop is a more punitive climate, increased injustice and uncertainty which have sucked hope out of the system for prisoners and staff. Solutions lie in good, strong leadership from Michael Gove through to Michael Spurr, the reforming chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, and prison governors across the estate, a commitment to treat people in prison with humanity and respect and a determination to make prison an effective place of last resort.

Staff have been battered. Assaults by prisoners on staff have risen by 28% since 2010. Last year alone there were 3,637 such assaults. A mainstay of prison safety has been clumsily undermined by reducing staffing levels to a benchmarked lowest common denominator, thereby limiting contact and communication and subsuming, or sweeping away, lynchpin posts in disability liaison and suicide prevention. Drastic cuts in numbers and lower pay for new entrants, soaring sickness rates and the deployment of temporary reservists, all make good professional relationships between staff and prisoners harder to establish and maintain.

The former Justice Secretary's insistence on the introduction of a raft of petty restrictions, parcel and book bans amongst others, and additional punishments within prison, while at the same time reducing access to justice and means of redress by cancelling legal aid for people in custody, piled more pressure on prisoners and staff. The outstanding success of around 450,000 releases on temporary license each year preparing people for work and family life, as well as release on compassionate grounds, have been allowed to be eclipsed by three tragic widely publicised failures.

Eroding the distinction between sending people to prison as a punishment and sending people to prison for further punishment beyond that of loss of a liberty, is a dangerous thing to do. It undermines too easily the duty of staff to treat everyone with humanity and respect regardless of what they have done. Instead this populist approach risks giving a mandate to those few staff who bully and abuse their power and authority in a closed institution.

Drugs make things even rockier. A rapid increase in the use of psychoactive substances, under the radar of traditional drug testing, has fuelled unpredictable behaviour, debt and associated violence. While the prison service is working to get to grips with this new problem, arguably it is more of a symptom than a cause of decline in safety and standards and can best be dealt with in the context of improved regimes and closer supervision.

Fairness and justice should be the watchwords of a decent prison system. Our prisons have become laden with people, over 12,000, serving mandatory indeterminate sentences. Many are held years beyond their tariff expiry date. Coming to grips with a beleaguered prison system must include reducing uncertainty, making a fair response to those still serving the discredited, and now abolished, indeterminate sentence for public protection and examining the cases of those many, mostly young, people caught up in dragnet sentencing under joint enterprise.

Michael Gove is certainly not starting with a clean slate. The pace and scale of change over the last few years has been both thoughtless and relentless. The challenge now is to translate this marked new reflective tone set by the Justice Secretary into sensible policy and to create a just, humane and effective penal system. In part this can be achieved by reviewing and revising some of the regime changes and reducing pressure on the service by enabling governors and staff to use their discretion and make common sense decisions. There is considerable scope to enable people in prison to do time rather than waste time, to take personal responsibility and to help others. Resettlement can be the focus of a sentence from the start. Families can be engaged more in rehabilitation and more emphasis can be placed on education, skills for work and finding safe housing. These approaches were commended by the Justice Secretary in his meeting with the Justice Committee on Wednesday and we understand will be developed in his speech on Friday.

Foreshadowing this, Michael Gove said: "People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain."

A trap to avoid, particularly in straitened times, is the temptation to try to use and promote prison as a place of transformation, an opportunity for second chance education or a means to gain access to much needed health treatment. Many of the solutions to crime lie outside prison walls in early intervention and prevention, nipping trouble in the bud, making amends for harm done and community service and public health measures: treatment for addicts, liaison and diversion services for people with mental health needs or a learning disability. There is scope in the sentencing framework to curb ever-lengthening terms in custody.

Managing prison numbers down is harder and more complicated than talking the prison population up. To achieve the radical reform Michael Gove is considering, means not only putting prison right but also putting it in its place. The Justice Secretary must reserve imprisonment as a punishment of last resort for serious and violent offenders in a balanced justice system. That is the right thing to do.

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