Thursday, 7 January 2016

What To Do About Prison?

Since the appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary, there's been quite a flurry of speculation regarding possible reform of our prisons. I recently became aware of this contribution to the debate on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website:-

Beyond Govism

Professor Joe Sim dissects Michael Gove's reform agenda and puts forward his own proposals for radical transformation.

According to liberal commentators, Michael Gove's speech on penal reform at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, and his subsequent announcement that HMP Holloway was to close, will usher in a new age of enlightened sympathy and benevolent redemption for prisoners. This was symbolised by the standing ovation given to Elroy Palmer, an ex-prisoner, when he spoke immediately before the Justice Secretary.

Gove's speech - endorsed by David Cameron the following day - was compared with the retributive philosophy of Chris Grayling and with Michael Howard's infamous 'prison works' speech. For liberals, Grayling, Howard and Gove inhabit different penal planets. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Kettle argued that Gove was a 'true reformer' who 'Liberals should be cheering...on'.

Conceptualising the debate about penal policy as a binary divide between retribution and reform, or what appears to be two contrasting personalities, is too simplistic and ignores a series of historical continuities between the old and the new. Prisons, with some honourable exceptions, have never been places of rehabilitation.

In 2015, they remain abject places of despair built on the infliction of punishment and pain. They make prisoners feel bereft, disorientated and terrorised, just as they did in the 1990s under Howard, (and in the 1890s and 1790s). As the charity INQUEST has consistently maintained, this is particularly relevant to self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in custody. 

The ‘soul-crunching reality of prison’
The latest report from Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and the review by Lord Harris into self-inflicted deaths amongst 18 to 24 year-olds, highlight the desperate nature of life inside. Both confirm the soul-crunching reality of the prison experience. Overcrowding, assaults, violence, bullying, self-harm, self-inflicted deaths, lack of staff training, little or no coordination between different agencies inside and outside, lack of purposeful activity - and on it goes.

Gove's speech was as important for what was missing as for what it contained. He ignored: the authoritarian, occupational culture of prison officers and its insidious impact; the extent of self-harm and the increasing number of deaths in custody (216 in 2015 at the time of writing); the ongoing impact of state violence; the desperate cuts to legal aid; and the degrading and abject plight of those detained in immigration detention centres.

Gove also failed to discuss the lack of democratic control of prisons and satellite institutions such as immigration detention centres. This is illustrated through the systemic, non-implementation of recommendations made by official bodies relating to different aspects of penal policy. Between April 2014 and March 2015, 2,770 recommendations were made by the Prison Inspectorate. Only 1,088, or 39 percent were fully achieved, leaving 61 percent, or 1,682 that were partially achieved or not achieved at all. At 39 percent, the percentage of recommendations actually achieved was the same as the percentage not achieved.

Recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, and by different coroners, have also been systematically ignored. For INQUEST, there has been an 'institutionalised failure' to learn lessons from previous deaths of young people in prison. In a submission to the Justice Committee, INQUEST argued that this lamentable situation has been ‘compounded by an overall lack of Parliamentary scrutiny regarding the non-implementation of these recommendations'.

Despite the obvious omissions and flaws in Gove’s speech, the Howard League for Penal Reform, in a gushing press release, described it as 'impressive'. However, it was not that different from others delivered by previous Conservative and Labour Home Secretaries in one key sense. The elephants in the Tory room in Manchester were social divisions, and the toxic inequalities they generate. The Justice Secretary's rhetoric floated above and beyond recognising and discussing these divisions and inequalities. They were invisible. Criminality was understood, without equivocation, as the prerogative of the visible poor and powerless, not the invisible rich and the powerful. 

‘Ideological mystification’
While government ministers now talk about punishing income tax evasion and corporate fraud, it is the allegedly debauched behaviour of the poor and the powerless, and their 'dysfunctional' families, who continue to be constructed as the problem to be contained and punished. Show them the redemptive hand of benevolence and their world can be turned around. The systemic and rampant criminality of the powerful, inside and outside of the state, mostly perpetrated by well-educated individuals from allegedly well-integrated, functional and respectable families, remains marginal to the everyday concerns of politicians, and the liberal penal reform lobby. The powerful have no need for redemption. They are the benevolent norm to which the poor should aspire.

What was on display at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester was a classic example of what Steven Box described as 'ideological mystification', in his 1983 book, Power, Crime and Mystification. The reality of crime, its definition, meaning, impact, nature and extent across social classes, was hidden behind the rhetoric of redemption for prisoners. However, redemption is not a progressive rhetoric. Rather, the salvation offered by Gove can be understood through the lens of what Stuart Hall described as 'regressive modernisation'. This involves attempting to 'educate and discipline' the wider society into a 'particularly regressive view' of the present [and the future] by 'paradoxically dragging' it 'backwards through an equally regressive version of the past'.

In the case of prisons, while the Justice Secretary might appear to be a reforming moderniser, he has a highly traditional, regressive perspective on the role of the prison and the nature of crime. As John Gray has noted, David Cameron's understanding of the present, and his vision for the future, is also rooted in a regressive version of a neo-Georgian past where the country is '.....governed by a small coterie of wealthy families that collude and compete for power and influence....The end result will be a society in which opportunity is concentrated in a single, self-perpetuating oligarchy'.

Govism is not about individual liberation, social equality and social justice. Rather, it is about readjusting social control and recalibrating state power while conspicuously ignoring the corrosive social inequalities and parasitic social order which prisons, and the wider criminal justice system, legitimate and sustain.

Breaking free from the past
In order to fundamentally transform the prison system, the Justice Secretary needed to think in truly radical terms and break free from the discourse that the prison provides the answer to crime. He should have considered developing a broader philosophical, and less hypocritical, reductive view of crime and punishment, which the majority of politicians and state servants share. This would have included:

1.Thinking about how public protection in the very widest sense should be defined;
2. Recognising that there are a range of social harms, including, but not restricted to, conventional crime that have a devastating impact across society but which are rarely punished;
3. Stopping the prison building and privatisation programme as well as closing existing prisons;
4. Radically transforming sentencing policies;
5. Embedding structures of democratic control in order to ensure that state servants, at every level, are accountable for their actions and their failures.
The narrow, intolerant parameters within which the debate on prisons, criminal justice and social welfare is now coded and framed means that those who refuse to accept these parameters are often dismissed as idealistically irrelevant. Implicitly and explicitly, dismissing critics with the offensive cliché that they are pro-crime and anti-victim has been central to the rhetoric of successive Tory and Labour governments. Given their appalling track record around violence against women and children, the current government, and its predecessors, can hardly claim the moral high ground when it comes to supporting and protecting victims.

The Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, should make a clear ideological and policy break from this hypocritical past. The Party should challenge the authoritarian, law and order policies developed under the Blair and Brown governments, with their relentless focus on the poor and powerless, and confront the supine policy of non-intervention that crystallised their craven approach to the criminality of the powerful.

Labour could also learn lessons from the interventionist activism, and rigorous research, conducted by organisations like INQUEST, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and Women in Prison who have developed a range of strategies to directly contest state-defined 'truth' through utilising the testimonies of those at the sharp, and often-brutal, end of criminal justice practices. This has allowed them to make radical interventions into political, popular and policy debates without being compromised by the state's endless capacity for incorporation and accommodation.

It would be churlish not to recognise that Gove has tried to distance himself from his immediate predecessor in terms of lifting the book ban in prisons and abolishing the criminal court charges. However, ultimately, the moral rectitude that lies at the heart of his rhetoric should consider one key question: How can prisoners be expected to become morally upright, redeemed human beings when they are confronted by the combined weight of an economic, political, cultural, legal and penal system grounded in, and legitimated by, immoral and amoral forms of behaviour?

Govism cannot provide an answer to this question precisely because of the narrow parameters within which its analysis of the penal system, and its problems, are understood.

Radically transforming the current system of criminal injustice for the many into a programme of social justice for all, means getting beyond Govism, transgressing the rhetoric of neoliberal reform and rejecting the sanctimonious platitudes offered by the Justice Secretary. Developing the policies outlined above can turn piecemeal, reformist possibilities into radical, political probabilities. They provide the key to this radical transformation.


It's always good to hear from the robust former Chief Inspector of Prisons. This from the Justice Gap:-

Lord Ramsbotham: ‘Grayling completed the destruction of the Probation Service’

INTERVIEW: ‘When I walked away from my first inspection of Holloway, I found that its problems stemmed from – and still stem from – the lack of a coherent management structure,’ recalls Lord David Ramsbotham OBE, cross-bench peer and former Chief Inspector of Prisons between 1995 and 2001.

A former general of the British Army, Lord Ramsbotham said that he was ‘staggered’ to find that no one was responsible, or accountable, for any type of prison or prisoner. He said that this left Governors to do their own thing, provided that they kept within their budget.

Kenneth Baker, as Home Secretary in early 1990s, accepted that regional clusters would be a good idea to ensure that each region had enough prison places to ensure that no prisoner should ever be confined outside their local area. This recommendation was included in the only white paper on prisons – Custody, Care and Justice – published in 1991, but, according to Lord Ramsbotham has never been implemented. ‘So instead of having a coherent management structure, governors had no one to go to for advice and help other than a geographical area manager, responsible for budgets, and a prison service operational standards audit team which focused on targets and performance indicators,’ he explained.

When the Prisons Service complained that they were short of resources, Lord Ramsbotham said that ‘they could never say by how much, because no one knew the cost of imprisonment [and] how much was needed to provide every prisoner with the treatment they needed to qualify for release.’ Without that coherent structure, Lord Ramsbotham fears that the prison service will be ‘unable to deliver what Michael Gove says that he wants to do to improve things.’

All about punishment
Lord Ramsbotham said that the old issues still apply but also said that they have been exacerbated by the ‘rushed’ and ‘un-researched’ initiatives of the immediate past minister for justice, Chris Grayling. ‘He initiated cuts of on average 33% on staff numbers in every prison.’ he says. ‘This has meant that already impoverished regimes, including inadequate educational and work training provision, have been compounded by staff saying that, due to shortages, they cannot escort prisoners to activities, including library visits, evening association and the ability to make telephone calls, drug treatment and weekend activities leaving prisoners locked in their cells from Friday mid-day to Monday morning.’

Lord Ramsbotham also takes issue with the watering down of the probation service. He says that Grayling changed its ethos from ‘advise, assist and befriend’ which, working closely with courts and the police, it had done for over 100 years to ‘one of punishment.’

‘Grayling completed the destruction [of the Probation Service] by privatising probation support to the lower end of the criminal spectrum, breaking its alignment with existing criminal justice boundaries, and aligning probation with the Department of Work and Pensions boundaries, and making Community Rehabilitation Companies, paid by results, responsible for planning and organising rehabilitation from prisons.’

The Home Office is incapable of managing immigration
According to Lord Ramsbotham, who had oversight of detention centres during his time as prisons inspector, there are two main things wrong with immigration centres. Firstly, they were not intended for long stays, merely to hold people while problems with identification or nationality were resolved. As a result they lack sufficient facilities to occupy everyone by day. Secondly, they are often used to house people who should not be there, namely prisoners, sentenced to be deported, who have completed their prison sentence and then been sent to a detention centre for their deportation to be actioned.

‘Practically the Home Office is incapable of managing immigration. Its case workers are inadequate – witness the fact that 60% of appeals are based on faulty case work – there is a massive millstone of over 600,000 unresolved cases before they even get to today’s work, and it suffers from what the Independent Asylum Commission characterised as a culture of disbelief.’

The peer argues that ‘the whole immigration system is in need of overhaul’. Alongside other peers, he will be pushing the issue of time-limiting detention during the passage of the Immigration Bill.

Lord Ramsbotham is the chair of the Koestler Trust, a charity which helps detainees to express themselves creatively. ‘To me the most depressing statistics regarding prisoners are the numbers who either truanted or were evicted from school, and the numbers who can neither read nor write,’ he says. ‘That is an indictment of our educational system, but it is also an opportunity for the state to rectify when someone is received into either prison or probation. Education is important because, without the basics, no one can really look after themselves, let alone anyone else, and every single job training course demands at least a basic level of education.’

There are many studies which suggest that literacy increases self-esteem. Lord Ramsbotham argues that prisons should test everyone when they enter and when they leave, and be judged on the numbers who still can’t read when they leave.

‘Education is the bed-rock on which all rehabilitation programmes can be built, and so, if rehabilitation really is the aim, every prisoner should be educated to the level required to take part in more job-orientated training.’


Finally, few would argue with the admirable sentiments expressed here in the Daily Telegraph regarding education. Of course the trouble being is there's now a desperate shortage of staff to unlock and supervise any meaningful activity:-

'Making prison work, once and for all'

It’s been more than 20 years since Michael Howard declared that 'prison works'. Since then, there have been extensive debates about whether he was right, whether our sentencing guidelines are appropriate, and which steps we need to take to reduce crime.

As it stands, the numbers suggest the system isn’t working. The prison population of England and Wales is 85,641, compared to 44,246 in 1993. Reoffending rates are 25.4 per cent. And according to the National Audit Office, reoffending costs us the equivalent of staging another Olympic Games every year.

So what can we do about it? Well, to quote another famous saying from 1990s politics: education, education, education. 2016 has got to be the year we talk seriously about skills development for high-risk populations, in prisons and after prison.

Luckily, in the current Justice Secretary, we’ve got a champion. Michael Gove may have raised more than a few heartrates while at the Department for Education, but his current agenda of upskilling prisoners is certainly to be commended.

In September, Mr Gove announced a review into prison education, led by Dame Sally Coates. At the time, he said that it was key to equip prisoners with the skills they need to be employable.

To me that’s common sense, given that only 53 per cent of the prison population have any qualifications, compared to 85 per cent of the working-age population.

Prisoners are some of society’s most marginalised and vulnerable people, and many were let down by the education system as children. Obviously, there are dangerous criminals who belong behind bars, but there are others who, with the right rehabilitation and support, could go on to make a positive contribution to society. Making sure they have the skills to work rather than revert to crime is at the core of that.

Unfortunately some of the public prefers the ‘lock ‘em up; throw away the key’ mentality. After reports that Gove was considering bringing tablets into prisons – which the Ministry of Justice is looking into, but not confirmed – a newspaper letter writer commented that they’d only recently been able to afford an iPad. "I have never committed a crime," they wrote. "Perhaps that is where I have gone wrong".

If Gove is to get anywhere with prison reform in 2016, we’ve got to correct the misunderstanding that educating prisoners is a reward for committing a crime. It’s not. It’s about preventing further crime and benefiting both our society and our economy.

There are already a lot of brilliant schemes out there that are making a real difference. For example, prison-based restaurant chain, The Clink, allows inmates to train for a City & Guilds qualification in food preparation and St Giles Trust runs a peer mentoring employability programme for ex-offenders.

At the end of the day, training is about preparing a large sector of the population to productively re-enter society, rather than squandering the potential of people with their lives ahead of them.

It’s not a simple task. There are countless initiatives and qualifications on offer to prisoners, but it’s no good if staff aren’t around to ensure they get to classes, or if the technology infrastructure is missing to support the delivery (for example sufficient internet connectivity).

We also need to make sure we are offering useful training that readies prisoners for jobs that actually exist, including by investing in skills training programs that reflect local skills shortages. And, as with all reform, any changes need to be made with a long-term view in mind. Quick fixes won’t cut it.

Ex-offenders deserve the opportunity to turn their lives around, and education can be the key to unlocking that potential. Let’s make 2016 the year that ‘prison works’ becomes the reality.

Chris Jones, Chief Executive, City & Guilds Group


  1. Instead of running away from ex prisoners as if criminality is catching employing them to help run the system thereby providing meaningful employment as well as employing those who have first hand knowledge of prison and what is wrong with the current system. The system really wouldn't be that difficult to fix, it's just those in charge simply don't have the skills and knowledge to sort out the problems because they've never been a service user.

  2. A strong structural analysis of the criminological practices is long overdue. The reality of the 'continuities' of penal ideology suggests you have to be a wild optimist to think much real change is likely - without the type of real transformations needed in the use of imprisonment and in creating a fairer society. As the prison population has doubled in the past twenty years, an enlightened and progressive penal ideology seems more distant than ever.

  3. Yesterday Norman Lamb MP introduced a Bill into parliament about establishing a commission to enquire into mental health in many ways. Something similar is needed for Criminal Justice.

    I wonder if there was anything significant said about Probation at last night's Justice Alliance Meeting at Conway Hall, London. I saw Jeremy Corbyn did speak and believe the main issue was restoring Legal Aid. Ian Lawrence was due to speak. There was a Twitter flurry which I have not studied and I hope eventually to read a substantive write up about the event.

  4. Gove announcement . Peter clark former met counter terrorism chief made inspector of prisons and dame glenys stacey ofqual made chief inspector of probation

  5. Brilliant Blog Jim. I remain concerned that Grove' approach while a welcomed respite from what went before is pretty superficial and avoids the fundermental issues. During my working life I worked in prisons on secondments for a total of nine years both in a "therapeutic " prison (HMP Grendon) and a standard cat B local and trainer. I came to the conclusion that prison is not a neutral experience, it either makes people' situation and behaviour worse or better and that most regimes have their work cut out to limit the damage rather than actually have a positive impact. However good an institutional regime it can only have a limited impact on people in terms of "rehabilitation" the challenges are all when they are discharged. That's were all our investment and efforts should be focused on but never will because of NOMs prison centric centralisation. Can we ever change direction to ensure local communities lead radical change.

    1. I agree with that - I had two in prison probation jobs and it seems to me that for most, it is an overall negative experience from which they need to recover on release.

      Sadly I have heard a report of another suicide at Chelmsford Prison and an interview from a mother who warned the authorities - unspecified - he would attempt it.

      It reminded me of my visits to the constant supervision ward in the Hospital wing of the Local prison I worked in. It was absolutely horrible - Yet it kept some alive - which is perhaps at least an achievement.

      Probation had a very small effect and external probation folk found it very difficult to visit, that was years before the TR split.

      It is beyond sad and regrettable that our Government structure and processes seem to disregard professional experience for political expediency - it will need a real shift of attitude to change such ingrained behaviours = I am pessimistic about the country voting for a Corbyn type Government because those with the power and most influence will scare most folk.

      Maybe more social calamity is needed on a larger scale than was experienced after the 2007 Banking Crash or level of unemployment - about three million = experienced in the fairly early years of the Thatcher Government

  6. Extract from speech in parliament by Jo Stevens TWO days ago before she was appointed shadow minister for prisons and probation

    " At a time when the prison population continues to grow and the fragmentation of the probation service, post-privatisation, is seeing some private providers cutting jobs in probation by more than 40%, the rehabilitation of ex-offenders is more important than ever, and the pressure on charities working in this strand of the sector will be increasing all the time. Rehabilitation and reducing re-offending rates must remain a priority for the Government, and the work that charities such as the Prison Reform Trust and Unlock do—alongside incredibly hard-working and committed probation practitioners, who are under enormous pressure—is critical to this. Those charities have expressed concern about the waiver process and the impact it will have. I share many of those concerns.

    As the Secretary of State for Justice has stated, we should not judge individuals by the worst moment in their lives. Instead of seeking to narrow opportunities for ex-offenders to reintegrate and contribute to society, we should be supporting their efforts to contribute to civil society, both through paid employment in the voluntary sector and as volunteers. The Committee may know that many charities that work to rehabilitate people with criminal records employ ex-offenders, either as trustees or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar has pointed out, in senior management positions, because at the heart of the voluntary sector is the principle of working with service users, rather than doing things to them. This is no less important with people in the criminal justice system than with any other group. Any unnecessary barriers to the recruitment of people with convictions as trustees or into senior positions is, perhaps understandably, seen by charities working in this sector as a direct threat to their core mission."

  7. My mouth was watering at this speech. It bears all the hall marks of the privatisation programme since the success of wolds. I can't wait. Long overdue

  8. RRP SWM DLNR CRC announced Redundancies today, not good.

    1. Some details would be good - contact email on profile page. Thanks.

    2. From "DoingTime", sometime early 2013:

      "The timescale to implement the changes is tight. The operating structure of the new national probation service should be scoped by the end of the summer and CPPT staff ‘virtually divided’ into the two structures (according to national guidelines) by February 2014. The final phase between spring and autumn 2014 will see staff transferring to their respective employers and the new contracted providers taking over the CRCs. The MoJ has indicated there will be no compulsory redundancies, but it is expected that there will be a reduction in the numbers of back office staff required. The change programme is scheduled for completion by January 2015."

    3. Where are they now?

      Antonia Romeo - Antonia has been Director General of the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat (EDS) at the Cabinet Office since February 2015. In this role she coordinates policy advice to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Antonia is also responsible for the Implementation Unit, which implements the Prime Minister’s top policy priorities across government. Previous roles in government: Director General, Criminal Justice - 2011 to 2015

      Dame Ursula Brennan DCB is a retired British civil servant and a former Permanent Secretary at the United Kingdom's Ministry of Justice where she was also the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery

      Jeremy Wright is Attourney General

      Christopher Grayling is Leader of the House

      Not a single one has been negatively affected by the TRain crash they instigated. Just another instance of collateral damage en route to the next personal &/or professional milestone. The 40% staff losses across the CRCs mean nothing to them.

  9. Any details on figures for redundancies as SWM and DLNR yet?

    1. 50% of PO's in one East Midlands city famous for socks and Fox's Glacier Mints to go. Might not be any SPO's anymore. No opportunities to apply for voluntary severance. Those going will be selected by interview. Tears and utter dismay in office today. That fucking lying bastard Grayling has a lot to answer for. Many effective and caring servants of their communities being shafted. I hope the chiefs and chairs who sat on their hands are reading this and are ashamed.

    2. Walk out. All of you. Leave the company to sink. Sue the company for stress-related illnesses and constructive dismissal on a no win no fee basis if possible and then shout your stories from the rooftops especially when hig profile deaths and sfos occur.

  10. So TR has has simply been a means to an end for constructive dismissal. Promises have not been fulfilled. Total lack of follow through. Can't express the impact of TR on me, but after serious health issues such as cardiac arrest/coma/short term memory problems, I've moved into flexible retirement. Whoopee! As an ex offender, employed by probation for last 16 years, I am appalled and amazed at the way my probation colleagues have been treated by the MOJ. In response to the tears and dismay of colleagues, I can only join in saying that the so called MOJ does indeed have a lot to answer for.

  11. I just want to cry in uttet despair at this shambolic mess.

  12. Me too,totally distraught.Do you really think I will ever put in the effort again.

  13. I just want to cry in uttet despair at this shambolic mess.

  14. There are simply no words of comfort. I hope Karma does exist.

  15. "Letters went to unions earlier this wk but RRP are pressing on regardless!!! Business support had their briefing today and were told there will be 50% in redundancies across Staffordshire/West Mids. From 24 down to 12. At the briefing they were told there isn't enough time to offer voluntary redundancy so RRP have gone straight to compulsory based on sickness/disciplinary/ capability. Staff selected will get letters next wk!!! Tomorrow admin find out, Monday SPO's. No word as yet for main grade staff. It's disgraceful."

    "Just to clarify that was 50% business support! No word on numbers for others such as SPO, main grade as at the briefing this was blacked out!!!"

  16. From facebook:-

    "My CRC have gone into consultation with the unions over the new structure and probable job losses. However, they're in full drip feed mode so total numbers not yet known. However corporate services, front line admin and all SPOs have been warned they are in compulsory redundancy mode. They appear to have decided not even to go with VER or voluntary redundancy so the numbers must be shockingly high."

    (SWM and our twin CRC, DLNR)

  17. Has anyone heard about other roles such as PO's and PSO's?